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" ... [T]his nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

— John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

July 20, 1969. The day when man first set foot on an alien world. A day that some thought could never happen. A day which presented challenges that would unite a nation around a common purpose and capture the imagination of children and adults alike for a decade.

America did not start out reaching for the moon. The space race began in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, a small satellite no larger than a basketball, which was Soviet Russia’s (and the world’s) first venture into space. America answered that challenge with Explorer 1 in January of 1958 and the space race was on!

The Soviets were the first with a man in space, Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, but the U.S. followed closely with American Alan Shepard in May, Gus Grissom in July and John Glenn six months later in a Mercury capsule named Friendship 7. President Kennedy made his famous declaration a mere 20 days after Shepard first broke the bounds of our atmosphere, and declared that America would not let the Soviets claim the moon as a Soviet conquest.

What followed in the next eight years was nothing short of a technological miracle. New fields of science had to be developed to figure out the mechanics of space fight. New technologies needed to be invented to overcome the rigorous needs of a very inhospitable and unknown environment.

Remember: at this point, handheld calculators had yet to be invented. Computers, which had less computing power than your typical cell phone today, were enclosed in huge buildings under tight security and could only be used by scientists. Materials had to be developed that could not only survive the harsh conditions of space but could also ensure that our astronauts would return safely to earth. Many common items that we use today came from the space program. Everything from your GPS to memory foam to baby formula were developed by early NASA scientists.

The Apollo program was NASA’s third manned space flight program. The Mercury and Gemini programs paved the way and provided training for all the personnel, processes and procedures that were required for such a monumental undertaking. Many things, including surviving for days in an ultra-harsh environment, space-walking and docking one spacecraft with another all needed to be perfected for the moon mission to be successful.

Preparing for a journey to the moon was not without tragedy. Three astronauts were lost in an electrical fire in the Apollo 1 command module during testing on the launch pad in 1967. The next nine missions were used as building blocks up to Apollo 10, which was the final dress rehearsal for the actual moon landing.

A massive Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 into space on July 16, 1969, with Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Commander Neil Armstrong. The approximately 240,000-mile flight to the moon took just under four days to complete.

Just over 102 hours into the flight, the Lunar Module “Eagle” touched down in an area known as the Sea of Tranquility. The message “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed” was sent to let the world know that the mission was successful.

Four hours later, Neil Armstrong made the historic step onto the lunar surface and with the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” forever cemented his place in history as the first man to set foot on another world. Buzz Aldrin, who had the honor of planting the American Flag on the moon, followed about 20 minutes later, describing the scene as “magnificent desolation."

After taking a congratulatory phone call from President Nixon, the two spent almost two-and-a-half hours collecting specimens, taking core samples and setting up a seismic monitor to track “moonquakes." After loading up all the specimens and other equipment, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed back aboard the LEM and prepared to rendezvous with the Michael Collins in the Command Module orbiting the moon. Twenty-one-and-a-half hours after landing, the Eagle left the moon behind along with several mementos for any who may follow, including a plaque that reads:

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

The three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean four days after leaving the lunar surface, forever changed by the experience. Although President Kennedy didn’t live to see his dream come true, thanks to that famous speech eight years before, humans reached for the stars and for a brief time actually brought people from all over the globe together to share in one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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Scott Sayer is on the board of directors for Heart of the Valley Astronomers.

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