Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 30, 2012

Memories of Neil Armstrong, and hopes for future space exploration

It was so important, Mom and Dad let my sister Karen and I stay up late for it. We were among the millions of kids across America and probably the world waiting for the big moment. Astronauts were on the moon, and they were about to leave the lunar lander and actually walk on the surface.

This was all before the days of dazzling computer graphics, so the television kept switching to a full-size model of the lunar lander. Anchorman Walter Cronkite kept us informed step-by-step as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin suited up and got ready.

Then Cronkite told us that Armstrong was on the ladder, making his descent. We kept seeing images of those models and Mission Control in Houston. Armstrong was about to step off the lunar model and onto the lunar surface.

A grainy, scarcely-in-focus, black-and-white image appeared on the television. You could just barely make out the picture of a man in a space suit, and he was walking on the moon. To this day, it’s still one of the most awe-inspiring things I have ever seen. I’ve watched movies like “Star Wars” and all the “Star Trek” movies, but they are only entertainment. What I saw that night was history. We all cheered with the rest of the world.

The scene switched back to Walter Cronkite. “Man on the moon!” he exclaimed. He had seen exactly what we had seen, and like the rest of us, he was still grasping the enormity of the moment.

Naturally, we followed the rest of the Apollo 11 mission until Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins safely splashed down. I was excited when I saw that the quarantine module the astronauts promptly entered when they came aboard the aircraft carrier looked just like our neighbor’s camper.

I still thought about that big night and watched the other Apollo missions with great interest, and I was disappointed when we stopped going to the moon. I felt sure that a moon base was next.

But the excitement of that night came back again when I learned that the first human being to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, had passed away. Armstrong, like many of his fellow astronauts, had his brushes with death, but age had finally caught up with him.

Armstrong and the other astronauts in all the other programs blazed a trail into space. Robot probes such as Curiosity, which recently landed on Mars, are continuing space exploration. Naturally, I hope that people will go to Mars some day. NASA sent probes like Surveyor to the moon before the Apollo missions started, so I’m wondering if future astronauts might dig Curiosity out of a Martian sand dune one day in the future.

I just hope when that day comes, the excitement that gripped the world when Apollo 11 was launched with happen again. If anything, the excitement may be even greater. A radio signal needs about 20 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth, so when a astronaut takes that big first step on Mars, the rest of humanity won’t hear about it for 20 minutes. He or she better take a picture of that first footprint, because unlike the moon, Mars has wind.

Space travel may seem like a waste of money after a big recession and ongoing high unemployment, but we learn so much while doing it. A lot of the technology we use now owes its existence to the space program. Even our rear-window defrosters are a product of space technology. An uncle of a woman I attended college with invented the defroster.

Why did he do this? Well, it happened during the Mercury program. Designers had to find a way to keep the space capsule’s little porthole from fogging up. The astronaut couldn’t just wipe it off because the glass would immediately fog up again. This engineer had the idea of running electric wires through the glass. The resulting heat solved the problem; unfortunately, he didn’t get rich off this idea. He did it on government time, so it belonged to the government.

Rear-window defoggers are only one of the contributions the space program has given America. I wonder what we will learn if we send people to Mars or land on one of the asteroids; I understand that a single asteroid could contain more metal than humanity has ever mined. That one fact alone should be enough to inspire more space travel. I even understand that some minerals on the moon could help our energy needs back on Earth.

I hope that some day I’ll be an old man — if I make it long enough to reach that category — sitting in a chair, watching the first landing on Mars, and telling any young people who care to listen about seeing the first landing on the moon. Who was the first person to walk on the moon? I’ll be able to say, “He was Neil Armstrong.”

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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