By Steve Welker
Thirty-eight years ago today, July 16, a Saturn V rocket blasted away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, beginning the Apollo 11 mission.
Three days later, the Columbia command module entered lunar orbit and on July 20, 1969, at 3:17 p.m. in Mount Airy, the Eagle lunar module landed in the moon's Sea of Tranquillity.
Six and a half hours later — during which time pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, a devout Episcopalian, took communion — the astronauts opened the module and mission commander Neal Armstrong wriggled out (NASA redesigned a hatch's size to save weight, but forgot to also trim some inches off the space suit's backpack). Armstrong carefully descended a nine-rung ladder to the moon's surface, tested his footing in the dust and declared:
"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
It was 9:56 on a Sunday night. An estimated 600 million people back on earth watched the ghostly black-and-white images — NASA's bean-counters bought the low-bid camera to record the most historic mission since Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic — while Armstrong and Aldrin left the first human footprints on another world.
The two astronauts roamed no more than about 400 feet from the lunar module and the area they actually "explored" amounted to about two standard residential lots within a 35-meter radius. They scooped up soil, drove in two hollow tubes for core samples and picked up rocks with long tongs. They collected almost 48 pounds of material. They also placed equipment and took photographs. After 2 hours and 32 minutes, they were back inside the module and bedding down for a well-deserved rest.
At some point while moving around the cabin, one of the men accidentally broke a circuit breaker that armed the main engine. If they couldn't fire the rocket, they were stranded. NASA had a contingency plan for such a mishap. President Nixon would read a message of condolence, a clergyman would deliver the traditional service for men lost "in the deep" and NASA would cut off the radios to let Armstrong and Aldrin die in peace.
Fortunately, they activated the switch with a felt-tip pen.
Aldrin and Armstrong left the moon after slightly more than 21 hours, 36 minutes; rejoined Michael Collins in Columbia; flew back to earth; and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean shortly before 2 p.m. on July 24. The entire mission lasted 195 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds, or slightly more than eight days.
NASA sent six more manned missions to the moon. Apollo 13 famously circled Luna but did not land. Twelve 12 men eventually walked on it. Apollo 17's Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (the only trained geologist and scientist in the group) actually drove their lunar rover about 21 miles through the Taurus-Littrow Valley in three excursions totaling 22 hours. On Dec. 14, 1972, Cernan became the last man to leave a footprint on the moon.
Few people at the time expected that no human during the next 34 years would ever venture more than 600 miles from earth, or roughly the distance from Dobson to Disney World.
On Friday night about 9:15 I watched the International Space Station fly overhead. Orbiting only 220 miles above earth, it was 50 miles closer to me than Wilmington.
If NASA sticks to its current plans, if Congress keeps the dollars flowing and if Americans don't lose their historic fascination with exploration, mankind might return to the moon between 2015 and 2020.
The first manned mission to Mars is probably 25 years in our future. NASA reportedly has a landing penciled in on 2034's calendar, by which time I might be a great-grandfather watching the mission unfold through a digital visioning aid (I expect that hearing aids by then will be replaced with implants directly wired to the auditory nerve, if not to the brain's cortex itself).
Meanwhile, scientists continue to explore the moon by probing the 841.5 pounds of samples brought back in the Apollo missions. The rocks have been dated at 3.2 billion to 4.6 billion years old, going back to the moon's formation, and help us understand the forces that created and continue to reshape our planet.
Exploring the planets may help us understand life, too. Even if that goal seems irrelevant to your life, do you remember the excitement back in 1996 when NASA scientists announced they had found possible indicators of bacterial activity in a chunk of rock knocked off Mars 16 millions years ago and found on Antarctica's ice? And remember the photo they showed of what looked, for all the world, like a tiny segmented worm? The ensuing debate among scientists quickly soared to a stratospheric level over my head. However, journalist Kathy Sawyer does a wonderful job of explaining both the science and the implications of finding life beyond earth in her new book, "The Rock From Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets." NASA may have no greater mission than to help explore life's origins.
To me, the question is not whether mankind will explore beyond our own planet, but only whether we will send people on the mission or continue sending robots to do the job.
Looking up at the dazzling International Space Station as it raced across Surry County's skies not long ago, and gazing at the setting moon later, I couldn't help wishing I was there, looking back at earth. Not everyone shares that desire, but even those who believe it's too far to drive to Greensboro may remember the thrill when Apollo 11 put a man on the moon. Humanity will share that thrill again when men and women return to the moon and later land on Mars ... in the future.
When can you see the International Space Station overhead? Visit NASA's website at http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/sightings/index.html