Fifty years ago, this July, on the Apollo 11 mission, Mankind escaped Earth’s gravity and landed on the moon. July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin pressed human footprints into moon dust, as command module pilot Mike Collins orbited above.
Unlike any prior event, billions watched as Neil and Buzz walked on the moon. Apollo 11 brought us all closer together, offered fresh appreciation for America’s can-do, brought home Earth’s uniqueness in the vast black of space, and created an inflection point in the Cold War – accelerating its end.
America’s 50th Anniversary events, beginning July 13th at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, under an Air Force One, will celebrate the epic moon landing. Although Armstrong is no longer among us, Aldrin will be there – and Aldrin and Collins will surely attend other July events.
But May 1969 is also important. Another Apollo mission launched and successfully returned 50 years ago this week – Apollo 10. That mission, which followed the daring Apollo 7, 8, and 9 missions, carried Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford and John Young moon distance, to survey landing sites for Neil and Buzz in Apollo 11.
What is notable about Apollo 10, although neither Cernan nor Young are still alive, is how it fits on a continuum of American daring. In May 1961, 58 years ago this week, a young President Kennedy declared America would go to the moon – within the “decade.”
That daring gambit was a direct challenge to the Soviet Union. It was also almost unthinkable, since America had not even put a man in orbit. American Alan Shepherd had made a suborbital flight, nothing else.
From that moment forward, the US-Soviet Space Race – a veritable sprint to the moon – was on. It mattered, because this – in many ways – was a surrogate for war between two nuclear powers. While later Apollo missions explored the moon, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 were about getting their first. And we did.
Interestingly, Apollo 7 and 9 tested all moon-bound systems and Apollo 8 proved out-and-back to the moon possible. Apollo 10 was important for what crew did in proximity to the moon. Like Apollo 8, the crew of 10 got close – this time within nine miles.
In fact, when Cernan and Stafford separated into the lunar module, they could see “The Sea of Tranquility,” where Armstrong and Aldrin would later set down Apollo 11. They also – at one point – recovered from an uncontrolled spin in the module, within seconds of crashing into the moon.
This said, America pressed on. That is how America was – and at our best, has always been. On May 26th, 50 years ago this week, Apollo 10 splashed down safely in the Pacific. That is when the countdown for Apollo 11 really began. Within seven weeks, America landed two astronauts on the moon. Neil said it was “One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Buzz surveyed the vast, crater-pocked expanse, and thoughtfully called it “magnificent desolation.”
The daring of the Apollo generation, of these irrepressibly confident, unabashedly patriotic and incontrovertibly can-do men and, in a way, of all America 50 years ago – is a beacon.
When you gaze on the moon this month, do not forget Apollo 11, or love of life and mission orientation embodied in those astronauts – Neil, Buzz and Mike. Or the daring embodied in all of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 10.
Fifty years ago, this week, Gene, Tom and John were thanking their lucky stars they were back on Earth – back home in America. Today, our mission is simple – to appreciate their daring and carry on their dedication to America. When you see the moon, ponder the fact that Americans are the only ones to have walked on its surface.