Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footprints indelibly in the inch or so of dust that covers the lunar surface on the Sea of Tranquility.
In my opinion, those footprints are the most remarkable legacy of the first manned lunar mission. They say, “We broke the bonds of Earth. We were here.”
It was an event that a 16-year-old kid looked forward to with unbridled, nervous anticipation. When the day of the event came, I was working the evening shift at my first real job ever. I was a hamburger assembler and grease scraper at one of the local Burger Chef franchises.
I tried mightily to get out of the shift that night. Tremblingly, I called the assistant manager.
“I can’t work today,” I said.
“Reason?” he replied.
“It’s the moon landing.”
“Be here at 4 o’clock.”
“It’s the MOON LANDING.” I hoped he would detect the urgency in my voice. He didn’t.
“Be here at four.”
But I watched the landing anyway. As soon as Neil Armstrong rather tonelessly pronounced those fateful words, “The Eagle has landed,” I dashed to my dad’s car and drove the 10 minutes or so to the Burger Chef.
I was, as I recall, a little late for work, but the assistant manager didn’t seem to mind. When I got there with my tiny black-and-white TV in hand, he and I were the only ones in the place.
Everyone else on the shift had called in sick. They had all claimed a gastrointestinal condition of a most embarrassing kind.
I have since learned that claiming such an illness is the most reliable way of getting off work, especially at a restaurant. My mistake had been that I had told the truth and had, perhaps, waited too long to do it.
We stood our lonely vigil the entire night. Nary a customer entered the place. Nary a Big Shef was sold.
At last, it came time to shut the place down. I rushed through my duties until all that was left was the milkshake machine.
I switched on the TV, but no matter how I adjusted its rabbit ears, all I could get was sound.
I sat and listened to the mostly incomprehensible technical chatter coming from the Lunar Excursion Module that the astronauts had dubbed Eagle.
As the astronauts prepared to exit the LEM, in walked the assistant manager.
“The shake machine isn’t done. I want to go home.”
“Fire me. This is important.”
So, he reluctantly stood over me and watched me watch the TV. The guy really was far too dedicated to his minimum-wage job.
And then Armstrong spoke those slightly confusing words, “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I wanted to dance around the shake machine, but the hovering presence of the assistant manager prevented it. I thus wept quiet tears as I drained and cleaned the cursed thing.
After a few hours of sleep, I sat enraptured in front of our big TV as the commentators played the video of the first lunar steps over and over again.
But after all these years, I remember most the grainy images of the footprints that the astronauts left on the moon.
The moon has no atmosphere. It is too small and has not gravitation enough to hold the tenuous blanket of air that we on Earth depend on for life. No atmosphere means no erosion, so the footprints will remain unchanged for millions of years. They are eternal marks of a true human presence.
The moon, as Robert Heinlein wrote, is a harsh mistress.
It is locked in a lover’s embrace with the Earth in an elliptical orbit a mere 248,000 miles away — a drop in the cosmic distance bucket, but still the farthest distance from Earth that humans have traveled.
It is only about 2,000 miles in diameter, small compared to Earth’s 8,000-mile width.
The Moon seems a dead world, an airless rock with little geological activity. Why did we go there in the first place? Why will we eventually return?
I’m afraid we can’t help ourselves.
The Moon has inspired us since we first looked up at the nighttime sky with an incoherent yearning to understand what it was.
It is a living laboratory of solar-system formation, a pristine example of what the solar system was like billions of years ago.
The two types of lunar features readily apparent in a small telescope or binoculars suggest that it had a turbulent history. The small, bright craters are the result of countless collisions with hunks of space debris during the formation of the Moon.
Those “meteoroids” left their calling cards as the pockmarked, crater-strewn surface you see. The larger, darker areas you see are so smooth because of a later period of much larger impacts that overlaid the lunar surface with wide areas of cooled lava.
Because of their smoothness, early astronomers like Galileo thought they were large bodies of water and named them maria or “seas.”
It was on one of those “seas” that Apollo landed. It is called Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility.
The spot was purposely chosen because unmanned orbiters showed it to be relatively smooth and devoid of features. They landed there to avoid rough terrain, and ensure, as much as possible, a smooth landing. If the lunar lander tipped over, it could never return to Earth.
But little was known about the close-up terrain. As a result, the first lunar landing almost ended in tragedy.
When the Lunar Excursion Module got to within a short distance of the surface, Neil Armstrong discovered that the area was covered with boulders. Finally, he had to maneuver desperately to avoid a crater that was 40 feet wide.
They landed with only 14 seconds of fuel designated for the landing remaining. If 15 seconds had passed without a landing, the LEM would not have been able to rendezvous with the Apollo 11 mother ship and thus the astronauts would not be able to return to Earth.
In the end, it was a human’s skill that made the landing possible. A pilot who knew the capabilities of his machine and thus picked his way skillfully to a safe landing overshadowed all that technology.
Armstrong, the pilot in question, was a sober and unemotional technician. He reflected later that his most outstanding memory of the entire experience of being on the Moon was “the elation of finding out that we weren’t going to sink in the surface and could continue with all the other planned activities.”
Co-pilot Buzz Aldrin had a far more emotional and spiritual side. After the complexities of the post-landing checklist were complete, in the silence that followed, he removed a small container of wine and some bread and administered communion to himself.
NASA did not allow the ceremony to be broadcast to the world. They were reeling from a series of lawsuits by atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare. Here are his words that nobody, save Armstrong and a few NASA technicians, heard:
“I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
And that, my friends, was exactly the right thing to say.
We have learned much about the Moon from the Apollo missions. But we have learned more about ourselves. We have learned about our will, or lack of it, to explore the cosmos — to reach out beyond the bounds of our warm and friendly home to the cold, emptiness of space in search of knowledge and adventure.
Those days, it seems, are gone for the present. Even in our space exploration, we emphasize the practical needs served by low Earth orbits and the International Space Station. NASA wants to return to the moon and establish a permanent base there before heading to Mars. However, our current president prefers a direct Martian trip. With every administration, we seem to change our collective minds.
I really don’t know how things will turn out in the short run. But I do know with absolute certainty that a generation of humans, perhaps yet unborn, will again be drawn to the Moon’s stark, sterile majesty. Such yearnings are in our blood. They are part of what makes us human.
Burger Chef is long gone, but the first footprints remain. Those future humans will surely walk very delicately around those footprints. They will look with dumbstruck awe and perhaps think upon those times 50 years ago when we were so impassioned by the need to reach out and embrace the Moon.
Until then, the Moon’s lovely, harsh face will not change, as it has not changed through the ages. For billions of years, it has been our devoted companion as we travel together through the void. It waited patiently for humanity to evolve from a cell to a giant who can bridge the unrelenting emptiness of space. It will be there when we return. The moon will wait for us.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.