Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20th, 1969

Welcome to July 20th, 2009. At 11:56 (local time) tonight, it will have been 40 years since man first walked on the moon, since astronaut Neil Armstrong put his boot in the dust coating the lunar surface. And how the world has changed since then - how the world has altered in the wake of that achievement. And how the world has simply passed it by.

Where are we, since that fateful late night, when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon? What have we changed? Sure, countries have fallen and evil empires collapsed; we've built a space station, we've cured disease and we've tried to make the world a better place. But this world of ours, this fragile little blue marble in the deep, vast void of space, was never better served than by the program that sent men to the Moon.

Consider the technology involved. Without Apollo, the microprocessor would not have been born when it was; it may never have been born at all. Without Apollo, we would not have fuel cells that promise endless, pollution-less power. Without Apollo, we wouldn't have valuable insights to the history of the planet Earth, and our solar system. But most important, without Apollo, we wouldn't have hope.

Dr. Stephen Hawking is a far smarter man than I, and pretty much all of us, and he has said that we need to colonize this universe, because we've put all our eggs in one basket for far too long. I humbly agree with him, and the Moon is our closest neighbour, our companion in space, and the first logical destination for colonization. The Moon can give us natural resources, it can give us a valuable base for learning to survive outside of our neat little 80/20 nitrogen and oxygen mix. It can give us a place to go if we manage to kill our world off. It's a foothold in space, a launching pad to Mars, and to the greater universe before.

Imagine the value of a lunar observatory, for instance! No atmosphere, but you could build a mirror a thousand times the size of Hubble. Everyone has seen what Hubble has done, but imagine a fully functional observatory. What secrets of the universe we could get there. Plants and bacteria may grow differently in 1/6th gravity - we could discover new methods of treating illnesses. The potential is endless. The Moon is there, and it is ours. We should use it, instead of looking at it and remarking that it is pretty.

But let us turn from the future, and look to the past.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins set course for the moon because of the work of hundreds of thousands of people, and with the goodwill of the planet Earth on their side. They weren't the first pioneers.

Let us remember those who imagined this concept. Men like Robert Goddard, Herman Oberth, Sergei Koroylev, and Werhner von Braun. Men like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Let us remember the very first who stepped foot into space. Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Gherman Titov, Gus Grissom, John Glenn.

Let us remember the first who went to the moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, William Anders. Tom Stafford, John Young, and Eugene Cernan.

Let us remember those who went to the moon after Apollo 11: Conrad, Gordon, Bean, Lovell, Swigert, Haise, Shepard, Roosa, Mitchell, Scott, Worden, Irwin, Young, Mattingly, Duke, Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt.

Let us remember those who have died pursuing the destiny of our species: Bondarenko. Grissom, White, and Chaffee. Komarov. Dobrovolski, Patsayev, and Yolkov. Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith and Scobee. Husband, McCool, Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark, and Ramon.

Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin rode the Saturn V rocket into space, by far the most powerful rocket ever to carry humans. The first stage of the Saturn V rocket produced 7,648,000 million pounds of thrust (34,200,000 N), enough thrust to push forward around 225 Peterbilt 379 tractor-trailers. If the Saturn V blew, the lethal blast radius was three miles. Yet they rode this beautiful machine flawlessly from the earth to the moon...and brought their Apollo Command and Service Module (Columbia) back home. Safely.

The Apollo Command and Service Module was built by North American Aviation, and took about five years to take from concept to the actual manned craft. Unfortunately, poor wiring in one of the capsules claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in 1967. But the Command Module flew flawlessly after that. The Service Module's major malfunction was in April of 1970, when an oxygen tank exploded and put Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise in life-threatening danger. Regardless, the CSM was a gorgeous machine that took twenty-four men (three of them twice) from the Earth to the Moon. Fifteen CSMs flew in space; six had no name. Before the moon landing, those with names carried titles less dignified: Gumdrop and Charlie Brown. The seven Command Modules that bore astronauts destined for the moon were better named: Columbia, Yankee Clipper, Odyssey, Kitty Hawk, Endeavour, Casper, and America.

The Lunar Module, designed by Grumman in Long Island, was the only piece of hardware that never had a serious failure. It had some problems (famously the overload error during the Apollo 11 descent), but never truly failed. Indeed, one LM saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts when their CSM was stricken by an explosion. Like the CSM, the names for the first two LMs were almost comic: Spider and Snoopy. But the seven LMs destined for the moon had more appropriate nomenclature: Eagle, Intrepid, Aquarius, Antares, Falcon, Orion, and Challenger.

We can only imagine what appropriate names the next class of ships to take us beyond Earth's gravity will bear, and what men and women will be inside of them. But when we return to the Moon, whoever and whenever that might be, it shall be in peace, and with hope, for all human kind - and we shall be returning to a legacy greater than any of us and the equal of all.

And we should remember what JFK had to say:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too...Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

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