He had to land manually, as the onboard computer couldn’t process instructions fast enough as they sped toward a field of boulders; landing on them would have surely meant death. But he settled down with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining and, after a few hours of rest, stepped onto the surface of our moon, followed shortly by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, while Michael Collins circled less than 10 miles overhead in the command module, Columbia.
Driven by dreams — and funded by a burning desire to beat the Russians — the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, was a defining moment in history. Never before had so many people, in so many countries, watched a single event with such awe.
“It was probably the greatest singular human endeavor, certainly in modern times, maybe in the history of all mankind,” said former astronaut Gene Cernan last week. Now 65, Cernan was the last of the 12 men to walk on the moon, from Apollo 17 in 1972.
In a rare interview last week, Armstrong said that at the time of launch, he guessed their chances of returning alive were about 90 percent, and the chances of a successful landing on the moon were only 50 percent. But they went anyway, and gladly.
Everyone in the program knew there were significant risks — right up to the top. President Richard Nixon was ready to address the nation in case of failure. Nixon speechwriter William Safire (now a columnist for the New York Times) wrote the words Nixon never had to use.
The memo was titled “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER”:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Imagine the pressure they must have felt! But they thought it was important to take such risks. True heroes indeed, and it was worth it: their bold steps inspired an entire generation, not just of Americans, but of the entire human race.
Including me — I started my career as a science writer, with a specialty in explaining complex topics to a lay audience, proudly working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for ten years, where I loved being shoulder to shoulder with the people that make our reach toward the stars happen.
For a terrific summary of the Apollo 11 mission — as told by the astronauts while it was fresh in their minds — well illustrated with great photos, see NASA’s The First Lunar Landing site — released for the landing’s 20th Anniversary!
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I had the honor later of attending Neil Armstrong’s final public appearance.