Wednesday, July 20, 2022

1969—Man Oh Man on the Moon

The world was transfixed by the grainy video from a camera attached to the Lunar Module as Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

As Americans and countless others around the world stayed glued to their televisions, Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the face of the Moon on July 20, 1969, 53 years ago today. Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission climbed down a ladder from the Lunar Module Eagle to the surface in the Sea of Tranquility at 10:56 P.M. Eastern Day Light Time. 

As he climbed down he repeated a carefully constructed statement on what he knew would be a historic occasion.  Viewers at home heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  Armstrong would later insist that he said “one small step for a man” and that the article had simply not been picked up by the microphone.  It is indicative of Armstrong’s notoriously detailed mind and insistence on precision that this misquote bothered him for years. 

The mission famously made good on President John F. Kennedys 1963 pledge, made at the height of the Space Race with the Soviet Union that the country would go to the Moon within a decade.  

The crew of Apollo 11--Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin in their NASA publicity photo.

Like Armstrong, the other two members of the Apollo 11 crew were already veteran astronauts.  Pilot Michael Collins stayed in the main Command Module, Columbia still in orbit while Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot Edwin Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface, a tense trip marked by an alarming shortage of fuel for the rockets that adjusted the attitude of the craft and brought it to a landing.  Less than 11 seconds of fuel were left on touchdown.  

The business-like Armstrong had been calling off markers on the way down to Mission Control in Houston.  Finally, he radioed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.  It took two hours to prepare to depart the lunar module.  Armstrong was soon joined on the surface by Aldrin. The men were on the surface for a little over two and a half hours. 

They shot still photographs, made a panoramic video of the surroundings then set up the camera on a tripod to observe their activities.  They tested various means of moving about on the surface and settled on kind of a lope. The two planted an American Flag stiffened with wire to stay unfurled in the Moon’s windless zero gravity.  They collected rock and soil samples, but everything was taking longer than expected and Aldrin tried to speed up the pace of his assignments before being warned that his pulse rate was climbing.  The pair was given a 15 minute extension of planed EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) to complete their tasks.  

On the Moon with the Eagle Lunar Module and the American flag of conquest.

Aldrin re-boarded Eagle first and had some difficulty getting a bulky box of mineral samples up the ladder.  After a night’s sleep, the Eagle lifted off to return to Columbia.  Aldrin and Armstrong had been on the Moon for just over 21 hours.  They left behind the flag, the landing craft stairs with a special plaque commemorating the event, and discarded items from their EVA including their backpacks, lunar overshoes, and a Hasselblad camera.  There was also a small bag of mementos carried by Aldrin in a suit pocket. 

After Columbia splashed down in the Pacific near Wake Island the capsule and astronauts were carried by helicopter to the deck of the USS Hornet, a famous aircraft carrier from World War II, where they were personally greeted by President Richard Nixon.  

President Richard Nixon with the Apollo 11 crew in isolation on the USS Hornet.

With the war in Vietnam still raging, dissent rife at home, and urban riots exploding in Black communities, Nixon—and the nation—craved some good news. 

The occasion of the landing has become beyond iconic.  Many historians now regard it as the pinnacle of the American Century.  Unsuspected by most people at the time, the county was on the verge of a long, slow slide. 

Today in on-going economic insecurity marked by the rapid shrinkage of the middle class, with old wars refusing to fade away and new ones looming, the public polarized to the edge of civil war, and the United States no longer able to send astronauts into space via American rockets or the retired Space Shuttle fleet, the image of Armstrong on the Moon is a melancholy reminder that once we were a nation that could do things, big things.

Former Resident Trump aiming to cast himself in the image of JFK ordered NASA to return men to the Moon within five years but gave the gutted agency scant resources to complete the mission.  In celebration of capitalism and scorn for government accomplishments, hope is pinned on two competing privately owned corporations to build re-usable rocket systems to first transport astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station from which a new mission to the Moon might be launched.

Old rival Russia, a partner in the Space Station, has threatened to end its maintenance and end the collaboration in retaliation for American support of Ukraine.   Russia is not publicly planning their own Moon mission, but many believe Vladimir Putin might have one up his sleeve to assert a new dominance in the world.  If so, those plans may be on hold due to the economic damage to his nation caused by the West’s boycott and isolation of his country.  The Chinese have openly been pursuing their own plans.

Not only does an American mission lack focus and the kind of unified national resources that made it possible to fulfill JFK’s challenge.  But the former White House Frauds wholesale rejection of science that did not confirm his various hunches and prejudices sapped the intellectual capacity to do Big Things.  American industry and technology no longer dominates the world and his trade wars with China and Europe threatened access to vital modern know-how, components, and equipment.

Ryan Goslling, center, as Neil Armstrong in First Man.

Despite, or perhaps because of all this, Americans commemorated the golden anniversary of the nation’s crowning achievement in 2019 with enthusiasm tempered by nostalgia.  The film First Man focused on Neil Armstrong played by Ryan Gosling.  The documentary Apollo 11 is enjoyed a well-reviewed theatrical release.  PBS aired multiple documentaries and less prestigious cable outlets like The History Channel and The Sci-Fi Channel had offerings of their own.  Broadcast TV networks are all had special programing.  Apollo Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston was meticulously restored and opened to the public.

Neil Armstrong died in 2012 and Michael Collins last April, but octogenarian Buzz Aldrin is still with us.  Aldrin enjoys his celebrity status and makes frequent public appearances including a memorable stint on Dancing With the Stars.  He is a strong proponent of the space program and an advocate for manned space exploration and a return to the Moon.  In 2017 he accepted an invitation from the former Grifter-in-chief to attend a White House speech on the space program.  He became a viral social media sensation for the contorted faces he made as his host spouted literal gibberish.  Way to go, Buzz!

Buzz Aldrin's, (second from the right) skeptical, shocked mugging during Donald Trump's unintelligible blathering about space became a social media sensation.

Meanwhile, manned space flight has become the plaything of egomaniacal billionaires.  One promises tourism to the Moon.  Another plans a mission to Mars.  Orbital space operations are now mostly commercial or military.  The bloom is off the rose.


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