Small steps and giant leaps


Buzz Aldrin poses on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong and the Apollo Lunar Module reflected in Aldrin’s visor (Image credit: NASA)

While New Horizons is making history by sending back a wealth of data from Pluto and its moons, let us not forget another piece of space history – today, Monday July 20th, is the 46th anniversary of the first Moon walk.

It all began with Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasting off into space on July 16th, 1969, with the intent to be the first men to land on the Moon. On July 20th, at 20:18 UTC Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon, an event watched by an estimated 500 million people (at the time nearly 15% of Earth’s population). The crew of Apollo 11 spent approximately 21 and a half hours on the lunar surface before returning home, bringing back with them over 20 kilograms of Moon rock.

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
– Inscription on the Lunar plaque left on the Moon

Over the next 3 and a half years 5 other Apollo missions and 10 other men walked on the lunar surface:

Apollo 12November 19th, 1969: Pete Conrad’s first words upon landing on the Moon (“Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”) were said in order to win a bet with a reporter to prove that NASA did not script astronaut comments.

Apollo 14, February 5th, 1971: Alan Shepard: The first man to play golf in space.

Apollo 15July 30th, 1971: David Scott performed the famous Galileo experiment, dropping a hammer and a feather at the same time. Due to the lack of atmosphere, both objects hit the lunar surface at the same time. [Video]

Apollo 16April 21st, 1972: 36 at the time, Charles Duke is the youngest person to have walked on the Moon.

Apollo 17December 11th, 1972: The last words said on the Moon were spoken by Eugene Cernan: “…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. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow [a lunar valley], 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.”

Will we ever return to the Moon? Most of the ongoing lunar developments are focused on robotic probes, such as the China National Space Administration’s Chang’e 4 lunar rover and NASA’s Lunar Flashlight lunar orbiter. The challenges facing manned space exploration are great, arguably far greater than those faced by NASA engineers in the 1960s. Now the challenge is not just to land on the Moon but to stay there and take the first tentative steps towards space colonization. Several manned missions to the Moon have been proposed in the early and mid 2020s – here’s hoping they’ll be just as successful as the pioneering Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s.

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