Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Dawning of a New World

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Neil Armstrong
July 20, 1969

I've heard that astronaut Neil Armstrong, the man who took the first steps on the moon, was a modest man, not prone to hyperbole.

When he said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as he descended the ladder on the lunar module and planted his foot on the moon's surface, I believe he really did understand the huge implications of that single, simple act. Regardless of how educated they were, all people — and it was estimated that half a billion people worldwide were watching — could understand what it meant to put a foot on the ground, and most could probably grasp that it was merely the first step on a journey that would take mankind into an era of unimagined developments and changes.

But all would not be revealed at once. In a manner of speaking, it was the first day of school for the human race. Science continues to build on things that were discovered via NASA's missions to the moon.

I was a small boy at the time, of course, so I didn't understand everything. Nevertheless, for me, the most heart–stopping moment on Apollo 11's historic voyage was the descent of the lunar module to the moon's surface on this day in 1969. I understood enough to know there were risks in that procedure.

Earlier, the lunar module had separated from the command module, which was piloted by Michael Collins, and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their journey to the moon.

As the lunar module descended, computers were reporting lots of errors — which turned out not to be errors, after all, just computer miscalculations — and Armstrong and Aldrin reported back to mission control that they were passing lunar landmarks four seconds earlier than expected and would be "long" — landing west of their intended landing site.

The folks back in Houston would easily adapt their design for later flights — but nobody in the viewing audience knew that. Viewers were told that the lunar module might not have enough fuel to re–connect with the command module if it didn't land within a certain time. Turned out the astronauts were receiving premature low fuel warnings, and there was no crisis after all.

But no one knew that. I remember feeling a genuine concern for the men on board — and a genuine sense of relief when they reported a successful landing with a few seconds to spare.

I wasn't the only one who responded that way — but I was part of a decidedly smaller subset that may have felt such anxiety for the first time in their lives on that occasion.

"Tranquility, we copy you on the ground," came the reply from Mission Control. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

It was the first mission to the moon. The astronauts and the crew on the ground were learning things that would be adjusted on succeeding flights, but, in July 1969, it was all new.

The astronauts did not step out on the moon right away. NASA had scheduled a five–hour sleep period for them because they had been up since early that morning, but the astronauts apparently did not sleep. With an unexplored frontier waiting just outside their door, I guess that would have been like asking a kid to sleep late on Christmas morning. Anyway, Armstrong and Aldrin spent the downtime preparing for their historic moon walks instead of napping.

While not mentioned publicly at the time, Aldrin also took communion prior to going out on the moon's surface. He did so privately because, at the time, NASA was contending with atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lawsuit that demanded that astronauts abstain from religious activities while in space.

I think that originated when the crew of Apollo 8 read passages from the Bible on Christmas Eve.

So Aldrin took communion on the moon with a special kit that had been prepared by his pastor, but he drew no attention to it.

When he returned to earth, Aldrin gave the chalice he used to his church, which still has it. Every year, on the Sunday closest to July 20, the church commemorates his lunar communion.

Once the astronauts were on the moon, I figured the hard part was over. I mean, all they had to do was go out the door of the lunar module, climb down that ladder and walk around on the surface, right? Nothing to it.

I suppose I was much too young to understand that, until someone did get out and walk around, no one really knew what to expect. All kinds of possibilities went through people's minds — and it's safe to say that most, if not all, were not good.

Before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, there was still a kind of mysterious aura surrounding it. Astronauts had been close enough to the moon to peer at its surface from their space capsules, and they thought they knew what to expect — but no one was really sure.

The moon, Shakespeare said, "comes more nearer earth than she was wont and drives men mad." And there did seem to be a kind of madness settling upon the earth around the time of Apollo 11's journey to the moon.

Most of the madness at the time was brought on by the space race. At the height of the Cold War, Russia and the United States were driven mad in a desperate race to get to the moon first. America won that race 50 years ago today.

But the madness wasn't confined to space. There were times that summer when it seemed the world was on the brink of spinning out of control.

Less than 48 hours before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy plunged into the channel on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. Kennedy survived, but a young woman who was riding in the car with him, 28–year–old Mary Jo Kopechne, perished.

And about three weeks later, the Manson Family would commit a series of highly publicized (for that pre–cable, pre–internet era) horrific murders in California.

Much of the world watched that night. It is said that more than 500 million people witnessed those first steps on the moon and heard Armstrong say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

And, from that moment on, it really was a new world — a world in which man could fly to the moon and back if he chose to do so.

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