It’s an immortal quote, one that was literally out of this world: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was July 21, 1969, and Neil Armstrong uttered that phrase as he lowered himself onto the dusty surface of the moon.
Armstrong insists he said the “a,” but most of us listening didn’t hear it. Armstrong blamed static, which is understandable, since he was speaking from the moon. A radio transmission from 238,900 miles away could be distorted.
Those were the first words spoken by a human being from the moon. Armstrong, an Ohio native, was a Navy aviator, Korean War veteran, test pilot and engineer before he became an astronaut.
He was chosen to command Apollo 11, the first mission to reach the moon. Along with Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin — the second man to step on the moon — and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, who came so close but had to settle for circling Earth’s only satellite during the lunar mission, they flew Apollo 11 to the moon 50 years ago as the world followed their journey.
I was 10, and remember it vividly. I stared at the moon that night, wondering what these lunar pioneers were doing, and how it felt to be on another surface.
Armstrong and Aldrin were the first of 12 American astronauts to walk on the moon. They were followed by Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, whose footsteps on Dec. 14, 1972, remain the last ones on the moon. He hoped otherwise as he stepped aboard Apollo 17.
“I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” Cernan said. “And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
His wish remains unfulfilled. The daring missions attempted and accomplished in the middle of the 20th century have not been replicated for nearly 47 years. While President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have said they favor sending a man to Mars within the next decade, there seems to be little public support for such a project.
What changed? Why are we so uninterested in space exploration?
The answer is, we never really were mad about the moon. Even at the height of the Apollo program, only 53 percent of Americans supported space travel, and figure often dropped below 50 percent.
Considering the time, with the Vietnam War killing more than 58,000 Americans, Presidents Johnson and Nixon focused on poverty, race, the environment and more, and the space race was competing with numerous issues for government money and public interest.
We loved seeing astronauts jump around on the low gravity on the moon, amazingly shown on our TV, but the scientific and technological benefits of space exploration were never fully appreciated. TV ratings declined, the public interest diminished and politicians reduced funding.
Since 1972, there have been brief spurts of interest. But programs have been launched and canceled, wasting $20 billion, according to Business Insider report.
In 2015, Aldrin said in a written report to Congress that it’s a matter of political will.
“American leadership is inspiring the world by consistently doing what no other nation is capable of doing. We demonstrated that for a brief time 45 years ago. I do not believe we have done it since,” Aldrin wrote. “I believe it begins with a bipartisan congressional and administration commitment to sustained leadership.”
Private exploration may be the next step in man’s first hesitant steps into space. Billionaires Elon Musk, who owns a rocket company called SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, whose company is titled Blue Origin, might put man on the moon before NASA does again.
Some think space tourism — the moon is merely three days away — is a very real option.
Ask someone who has been there. Shortly after he return to Earth, Armstrong said he enjoyed the lunar landscape.
“It has a stark beauty all its own,” Armstrong said. “It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”
We will have to take his word for it until we send someone else there. Half a century later, it seems farther away than it was then.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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