Mankind’s Greatest Achievement Posted by Gary Locke on Jul 18, 2019 in American history, News
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
That quote, by President John Kennedy on May 25, 1961, set the stage for what may well have been humanity’s greatest moment. There are certainly many who think so. When Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo Lunar Module on July 21, 1969, the world was watching. I certainly was. It wasn’t just historic; it was also thrilling in a way that nothing else in my lifetime has ever seemed.
The Space Race
It’s important to understand that the United States and the Soviet Union had been engaged in what was known as a space race since 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first unmanned space satellite. They also sent the first man into orbit around the Earth in 1961. Therefore, the US responded with Kennedy’s audacious challenge as an attempt to show superiority over their geopolitical rivals. Within a short period of time, all Americans took great interest in the programs which brought our astronauts into space.
We got to know the names and faces of these men of destiny (no women were ever considered for the job in those days). First came the Mercury 7 astronauts, who had been selected in 1958 and continued after Kennedy’s speech for another couple of years. The Mercury flights were single man capsules, meaning that only one person was launched into space for each mission flight.
Then came the Gemini astronauts. Named for the constellation and zodiac sign, Gemini is symbolized by twins. Therefore, the Gemini space capsule carried two astronauts per mission. Although the last syllable of Gemini is pronounced -eye, the astronauts and support personnel tended to pronounce the last syllable -knee. Eventually, Nasa’s public affairs office announced that the correct pronunciation of Project Gemini was “Gem-ma-nee.”
Project Apollo was the name of the program which would take a man to the moon. Three astronauts would take off, then two would take another vehicle to the surface of the moon, with the third remaining in lunar orbit to rendezvous and dock with the Lunar Module later. When Apollo 1 was almost ready for its first test flight, a fire in the cabin of the spacecraft killed all three astronauts on board. Although it was 52 years ago, and I was quite young at the time, I have never forgotten their names – Grissom, Chafee, and Young.
By the time Apollo 11 launched, taking Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their historic mission, the world knew the immense danger the astronauts faced. The Saturn V rocket, used to launch the spacecraft, was not only incredibly powerful and highly flammable (it used 20 million tons of fuel per second), but it weighed 6,540,000 pounds! On the Apollo 6 space flight, the rocket shook so violently that large pieces of it flew off on takeoff.
There was also the problem with returning to Earth. Not only did reentry into the atmosphere involve intense heat, but they landed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They had to rely on all the flotation devices working or they could possibly sink. Those last few minutes of every flight, when the transmission was lost, were always nerve-wracking for everyone watching at home. And, no doubt, for the astronauts as well.
You have to understand that we had no idea what was going to happen. Although there had been tests and simulations, this was still something which had no precedent. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) could practice all it wanted, until you actually landed on the moon and returned, this was all just theory.
There was fear that the lander would sink or topple over into the lunar surface. Were the rocks radioactive, or possibly contain germs which could infect the astronauts? We were pretty sure that there was no life on the moon, but we were far from certain. The astronauts were quarantined for three weeks after they landed back on Earth just to be safe.
An estimated 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program at its peak, and nearly 20,000 companies were involved in various ways. It was such an all-consuming project that it was considered an immense source of pride to say that you contributed to the moon landing.
Yes, I remember watching the moon landing on July 20th and the first time a man walked on the surface of something non-terrestrial (not of the Earth) the next day. It was the most exciting, thrilling event of my lifetime.
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