Wednesday, July 16, 2014

To Boldly Go Where No Man Had Gone Before

"The mission was Apollo 11. It was the capstone of an extraordinary effort ... and while men could argue endlessly over whether it had been worth the cost, its success was undeniably an American triumph."

William Manchester

When this day dawned 45 years ago, many things were true that would not be true anymore when the sun went down.

July 16, 1969 was a Wednesday. I don't know if Wednesday was known colloquially as "Hump Day" then as it is today, but millions of Americans got up that morning and went to work, just as they did every weekday morning. Some commuted great distances — as some do today.

It was summer, which meant that some families were on vacation road trips to landmarks, beaches, amusement parks or baseball games.

Wanderlust is deeply embedded in the American DNA, but, no matter how far any other Americans traveled in July 1969, the concept of travel would be forever changed by three men. Travel generally implies a destination of some kind, and those three men gave that word a makeover on this day.

Those three men — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — were the crew of Apollo 11, NASA's fifth manned space mission of the Apollo program.

In recent years, Americans had seen many manned space missions lift off in the Mercury and Gemini programs as well as the Apollo program. They knew the risks all too well, having witnessed the fiery deaths of three astronauts during a ground test for Apollo 1 a couple of years earlier. They knew there was nothing routine about space travel.

Except the destination.

"Apollo 11, with its 36–story–high Saturn 5 rocket, was fired at Cape Kennedy's launch complex 39A at 9:32 on the morning of July 16, 1969. ... The Saturn's third stage put them into an orbit at a height of 118 miles. After a 2½–hour check of all instruments systems, they refired the third stage. This gave them a velocity ... sufficient to throw them beyond the earth's atmosphere and on their way to the moon, a quarter–million miles away."

William Manchester

The eventual destination for Apollo 11 would be — as it had been for all space missions that had gone before — a splashdown. American missions splashed down in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and Apollo 11 was scheduled to complete its mission with a splashdown in the Pacific.

But in between the liftoff 45 years ago today and the splashdown eight days later, Apollo 11 did something that no other mission had done. It stopped somewhere — the moon. Two members of the crew descended to the moon's surface and walked around. They planted a flag to show they had been there.

And they left the first of several piles of space–travel debris.

On this anniversary, I suppose it is appropriate to wonder what kind of future, if any, America's space program has.

Aldrin has been an advocate of one–way missions for the first travelers to Mars.

And recently he revealed that he saw a UFO during Apollo 11's journey to the moon.

If that one–way trip to Mars materializes, the first travelers might expect to encounter a UFO as well — although Aldrin conceded that it could have been sunlight reflecting off panels from the spaceship. Since he does not know which panel, it qualifies (technically) as unidentified, and it was a flying object — just not, apparently, a flying saucer.

But Aldrin has also said that he believes there must be life somewhere else. If that is true, it seems at least possible that a spaceship from earth bound for Mars could encounter a UFO.

No one knows how long it will take a manned rocket to make the journey. So far, only unmanned probes have been sent, but it typically takes six months to a year for them to cover the 55 million–kilometer distance.

Surely they will bump into a real flying saucer during that time.

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