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Wed, Jul 20, 2005

Thirty-Six Years Ago Today

Apollo XI Anniversary Passes With Little Comment

Aero-Views by Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

Three dozen years ago a spindly spacecraft, built by the best and the brightest of the world's engineers and supported by a who's who of defense contractors, touched down on the surface of the Moon after a four-day flight from Florida in the United States. Two men were on board, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. A third, Michael Collins, orbited the moon in another small capsule to wait for them to return.

The Apollo missions -- five more would successfully land on the lunar surface and return -- produced limited, but unique science. But their prime product was national pride and a successful demonstration of something that had been long considered impossible.

I well recall the mission. For one thing, it launched on my eleventh birthday, and eleven is an age at which most boys are fascinated by science and technology to begin with. I had a distant relative who worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who sent me mountains of printed stuff that many years later I would understand had been a press packet. Since 1966 a map of the moon had hung on the wall of my bedroom. A classmate's father, an engineer at David Clark, had brought a space suit in for us to marvel at. And my model rockets, slapped together from Estes kits, rose into the sky -- sometimes hundreds of feet.

And on the night of July 20th I stepped outside the door of my parents' home in Hyannis and stared long at the moon. The feeling was so large I could not put a name to it. Within the year a moon rock came to my school, and again, I stared, and stared. This was science fiction coming to pass in my own lifetime.

For the young who were not alive at the time it is quite impossible to bring to life the feeling of immense possibility that the space program, along with some other major events, brought to the 1960s. It's equally impossible to regenerate the depression that sank over the nation as the 1970s developed into a decade of, in one president's words, "malaise." A symptom of that malaise was the six years that American manned space flight didn't fly, a period stretching from the Apollo-Soyuz mission of this week in 1975, to the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, of the orbiter Columbia in April, 1981, on the anniversary of another great launch -- Yuri Gagarin's.

There has been little said about Apollo XI this week, and less, if that's possible, about the thirtieth anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz. More people are focused on Eileen Collins (no relation to Apollo XI's Mike) and her crew, waiting for the go-ahead for STS-114 and the shuttle's return to flight. That's OK; history is just the tale of how we got to where we are today, and where we go tomorrow, no more, no less.

If we look ahead three dozen years, it's easy to imagine that many people will be on the moon, for business and for pleasure. Perhaps some will make a pilgrimage to the Sea of Tranquility where the descent stage of the Apollo LM still rests, or to the presently-unknown location where the ascent stage crashed after the astronauts abandoned it. And perhaps some writer will be writing a column on the mission that started it all.

Let's close with these words from Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module pilot, which he uttered shortly after landing -- and while taking Holy Communion (Aldrin, an Episcopalian, kept his intentions secret from mission planners, as NASA was being sued by militant atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair over previous astronaut expressions of faith):

"I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

Make that, past few decades. God bless you all: Buzz, Neil and Mike, and those that followed you -- and that will follow you in the years ahead.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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