Column: What’s next in space exploration?

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

That’s the feat itself. The fact that it happened 50 years ago is remarkable in its own right. How could it be that 50 years passed by so quickly?

Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the greatest achievement in mankind’s history. It was on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission reached its destination: the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin executed a tricky landing in the lunar module while their colleague Michael Collins orbited above them in the command/service module.

With Earth’s rapt attention glued to the real-life drama, Armstrong brought unbound relief to Mission Control in Houston and beyond with these words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

After Armstrong made history by descending a ladder and becoming the first man to set foot on the Moon, he made his famous statement that it was “one small step for a man — one giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin, who followed him down the ladder a short time later, achieved a different sort of “first.” Just as he reached the surface, “he paused for a moment to relieve himself,” according to the “The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration.”

Looking like strange creatures hopping around in gravity one-sixth that of the Earth, the earthmen collected soil and rock samples, set up scientific experiments and planted an American flag. Back home, people saw much of it thanks to TV cameras the astronauts set up. Those who saw it live on TV will never forget it. I sure haven’t.

I was 6 years old at the time, sitting in a bedroom with my two younger sisters, staring at the greatest historical event of our lifetimes. I was old enough to understand that this was special, this was big, yet not old enough to truly appreciate how remarkable it all was.

Now, 50 years later, looking back at those ghostly black and white images of men on the moon (too bad there was no high-definition TV back then), my fascination has only grown. How on earth (pardon the pun) did NASA do this?

History is a funny thing. Looking back in time, with the luxury of knowing how things turned out, gives us a sense of certainty. As a 6-year-old youngster watching this on TV, there was no sense of danger. This was an adventure and this was how a moon landing was made, I thought to myself.

The truth is, there was nothing certain about the Apollo 11 mission, from the takeoff to the need for pinpoint accuracy for exiting and entering orbits to doubts over whether the moon landing could be made to fear that the rocket lifting them off from the moon would work to the dangers of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Danger and uncertainty accompanied those courageous astronauts the entire way.

The complexities involved were mind-boggling. At each step stood potential disaster. How NASA accounted for the endless contingencies, with so many unknowns, is awe-inspiring.

It astounds me how some people can be so blasé about it, as if landing on the moon was a piece of cake. Just ask the Soviets (remember the Soviet Union, America’s competitor in the space race?). Luna 15, an unmanned Soviet spacecraft in the moon’s orbit at the same time as Apollo 11, crashed onto the lunar surface shortly after Armstrong and Aldrin’s walk.

Although there has been other sorts of space exploration with robots, I find it surprising that humans haven’t returned to the moon since. Back in the mid-1970s, Dr. Wernher von Braun, the controversial genius behind America’s rocket science and space program, said the United States had the ability to put a man on Mars by 1985. Of course, that hasn’t happened, but I think it’s only a matter of time. The history of mankind is one of expansion and exploration. Like the brave sailors who first ventured across the vast Atlantic Ocean, connecting the Old World to the New World, the future will see manned space travel to other worlds. For each of those milestones to come, people will look back in wonder at what Apollo 11 accomplished.

Half a century later, it’s still amazing.

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