What is mankind’s greatest accomplishment? Think about it.
The invention of the incandescent light bulb? The discovery of atoms? Or perhaps it was an exploratory scientific feat?
In that case, the Wright brothers’ successful flight of the airplane or Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight would be the most likely candidates.
A man was once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. He simply responded, “Because it’s there.”
I feel like this was the same spirit that drove the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Throughout human history, people of all different cultures and walks of life have dreamed of reaching the moon and walking upon it. Many of these individuals were mocked or insulted for thinking of such a foolhardy adventure.
One of those many people who dreamed of exploring outer space was President John F. Kennedy. The year was 1961, and the only reason that Kennedy’s dream was not considered foolish was because America was locked in a “space race” with the Soviet Union. Four years prior, in 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and changed everything. Suddenly, exploring space – including the moon – became not only a real goal, but a reachable goal.
Therefore, President Kennedy began consulting with NASA about ways to travel to the moon. Kennedy himself probably didn’t think about individual spacecraft, technical specs, or data computers. He didn’t have a hugely detailed plan about engineering contractors or groups of astronauts. All Kennedy had was a vision – he wanted the U.S. to commit to landing a man on the moon before the end of 1969.
As we all know, Kennedy did not live to see this goal, as he was assassinated in November 1963. But what he set into motion paved the way for NASA to start Project Apollo, whose mission statement was to realize the end-of-the-decade ultimatum.
Apollo astronauts were the best of the best – physically fit, highly intelligent, and capable of making life-or-death decisions at the drop of a hat. The vast majority of them were armed forces veterans and test pilots who chose to compete for a spot to land on the moon. Several were veterans of the the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs, which accomplished much in the way of rendezvous, docking, and spacewalks – all of which would be crucial on the Apollo missions.
The race to the moon was long and arduous. One of the many setbacks was the sheer fact that everything in the spacecrafts was brand-new and state-of-the-art. Endless tests put NASA behind schedule and made conflicts inevitable. There was immense pressure on all parties to get to the moon – both fast and before the Russians.
This backfired tragically in January 1967 when the first Apollo crew was killed during a cabin fire while performing a routine launch pad test in preparation for their mission. NASA temporarily grounded the program before convincing Congress to continue funding future Apollo missions. After fixing and fire-proofing the spacecrafts, NASA officials gave the greenlight for the first manned flight of the project, Apollo 7. More than 18 months after the Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 7 lifted off and invigorated spirits around the nation. This was followed by Apollo 8, which orbited the moon ten times in December 1968, proving that men could fly to the moon and back without adverse side effects.
After testing the lunar module vehicle on Apollos 9 & 10, the first manned mission to the moon launched in July 1969. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became instant icons and changed the world with their 30-minute trek on the moon’s surface. In doing so, the space race was won and the face of scientific exploration was revolutionized.
But that wasn’t the end. Project Apollo continued with the successful lunar landings of Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. (Apollo 13 suffered a burst oxygen tank on the way to the moon that forced the crew to abort the lunar landing. They returned safely to Earth by using the moon’s gravity to swing them back home.) All the landings included valuable discoveries about the moon’s composition, age, and other things.
In my opinion, the men who journeyed to the moon were not just pioneers, but American heroes. These astronauts sacrificed countless man-hours and drew upon all their skills to fly, explore, and essentially conquer space – not for America, but for mankind.
They came in peace for everybody. You see, the moon landings were a unifier during a turbulent time for the world. Violence in Vietnam was escalating. Riots were occurring daily in America and western Europe. People would turn on their TV sets and see chaos and turmoil. But then Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin provided a breathtaking distraction. The world watched in awe as men set foot on another world.
There is little doubt that the human spirit craves adventure. We were born to create and discover. Exploring the moon was a pivotal moment for the world and the individuals that inhabit it. When thinking about the moon landings, I am proud of the bravery and courage that those astronauts exhibited, as well as their curiosity and willingness to explore the unknown.
Even if you didn’t gather around the TV set with your family all those years ago and watched Neil Armstrong take his “one giant leap,” you can still appreciate and admire the hard work and innovation it took to bring men from the earth to the moon. I hope that mankind will continue to dare to do the impossible.