This Day In Astronautics History ► July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 touches down

43 years ago today, a little spacecraft called Eagle touched down on the surface of Earth’s moon. Onboard were 38 year old civilian test pilot Neil Alden Armstrong, and 39 year old United States Air Force pilot Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. Overhead in lunar orbit, controlling the Columbia, was 38 year old United States Air Force pilot Michael Collins. Together, these three men made history as the first crewed mission to successfully land on and return from Earth’s sole natural satellite. As moons go, the Earth’s Moon is a pretty big one. Any larger and it would qualify as a planet unto itself, so putting down on and lifting off from the Moon was no small feat. But Armstrong and Aldrin did it, and it was on July 20th, 1969, that Apollo 11 set a benchmark as momentous as the detonation of the first atomic bomb, or the discovery of fire. At no time previously had humans ever voyaged to another moon or planetary body in the solar system, landed on it, walked on it, and come back to Earth to tell the tale. Thankfully, we have volumes of pictures, as well as movie footage, and moon rocks too. Souvenirs from a time when the U.S. ambition to beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon culminated in an event that was altogether greater than the Cold War that drove it.

Of course, we don’t go to the Moon anymore. Not in person. I’ve ranted before in this space about how short-sighted I think the American public and the American political system is, in having cancelled the Apollo Program. Especially in our modern era of trillion-dollar stimulus, the cost of the Apollo program doesn’t seem so bad. Was it expensive? Yes. So much so that at the time there is no way any private enterprise could have tackled the project — thus I believe it’s one of the good examples from the 60s of federal government money going towards something only the federal government was capable of doing.

And the killer is, we didn’t have to stop! We had the money, we have the technology. We could have been putting up Apollo missions every year through the 70s, and in fact we had missions planned out to Apollo 20, but we quit. We got bored with the program, and we quit.

Oh, sure, we had the Skylab missions and the previously-mentioned Apollo-Soyuz flight, but nothing before and nothing since the Apollo moon landings has quite captured the audacity and the grandeur of those six flights that placed 12 men on the lunar surface.

I always felt bad for the six guys who had to remain behind in the Command-Service Modules. In my mind I playfully imagine the three astronauts having to do rock-paper-scissors to determined who gets to ride down to the surface, and who has to remain in orbit. And of course, the entire crew of Apollo 13 got cheated out of their landing by faulty hardware; thankfully they made it back, but what a disappointment for astronauts like Jim Lovell!

Now, our Apollo astronauts are passing on. As with World War 2 veterans, every time we lose an Apollo astronaut, I feel as if we’re losing some of the last living, tangible examples of American greatness at the zenith of what it meant to be great. These were hard-working, practical, determined, courageous men who did hard, courageous things for their country. The entire NASA effort from the first flight of Alan Shepard to that fateful landing on July 20, 1969, was a singularly focused, spectacularly unprecedented program combining all of the United States’ best minds, industries, and national spirit, in order to accomplish something which had been impossible for 99.999% of human history.

It’s difficult for me to write about the Apollo 11 mission. I was born in 1974, after we stopped going to the moon. I spent most of my childhood dining on promises (from the government) that we’d be going back again soon. The 1980s came and went. The Space Shuttle Program was amazing in its own way, and I don’t want to downplay it, because it was a stupendously successful program that is almost unmatched. But it wasn’t like landing on the moon. Nor is the International Space Station like landing on the moon. As humans — as people — I suspect we have always had our eyes (well, some of us) on that mythic Far Shore. It’s not enough to send robots. They are cheaper, more practical, and do better science. But what’s the point of merely collecting data for the sake of edification? Dammit, we want to go there.

But we don’t. And we haven’t. And pretty soon Apollo is going to be literally dead. All the Apollo astronauts will be in their graves. The few remaining specimens of Moon Rocket are on display as museum pieces. Our greatest (to my mind) national achievement, and we seem content to just let it sit there and gather cobwebs. Do our kids even care or give a damn? Did we care or give a damn??

My hope is that some time in the next five decades, whether I live to see it or not, someone gathers the capital and the manpower and the know-how to go back. The Moon is still there. If we wipe ourselves out and all the worst-case scenarios of catastrophe come true, the six landings sites of Apollo 11, Apollo 12, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 will still be there. They will likely be there for a billion years yet. Enough time for some other species to evolve on Earth, get ambitious, go to space, land on the moon, discover the Apollo relics… and then get bored and stop?

But this is becoming too bleak a picture for even my tastes. Again, I hope someone — a private venture, probably — gets their shit together and takes us back. It seems almost criminal that we went, and we decided to shrug our shoulders. I think we as humans are made of sterner, more audacious stuff. I know of nobody who looks at the photos of the astronauts on the lunar surface, and doesn’t feel inspired. It’s a uniquely awesome thing seeing those footprints in the regolith. I myself have written stories in homage to the images of those footprints in the regolith. That’s us. We made that. Do you understand? We walked on the Moon! How can you not love it?

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2 thoughts on “This Day In Astronautics History ► July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 touches down

  1. It. Will. Happen.

    It’s inevitable. I can’t tell you what language they’ll be speaking, but humans WILL settle the Moon and other planets. What we did once, we can do again. And we will.

    And thank you, Neil, Buzz, and Michael for showing us the way. You shall not be forgotten.

  2. Here in Germany, July 20 is always dedicated to remembering Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. And while that’s certainly an anniversary worth remembering, I still wish they’d spare a few thoughts for the moon landings, too.

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