“We Choose to Go to the Moon”

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.  – John F. Kennedy (1962)

I believe that this 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 (1961)

The United States had a mere 15 minutes of space flight time under her belt when President Kennedy uttered those famous words in a special message to a joint session of congress. NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard had taken a ride on a Mercury-Redstone Freedom 7” rocket on May 5, 1961 It was a suborbital flight that lasted all of 15 minutes.

Meanwhile the Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch with manned spaceflight just as they had by orbiting Sputnik I ahead of any satellites we could orbit. Comrade Gagarin made history by being the first confirmed man in space aboard his Vostok I spacecraft, a flight of  89 minutes with one complete earth orbit. He was followed by Comrade Titov in his Vostok II spacecraft on August 6, 1961.

NASA would not put an American astronaut into orbit until February 20, 1962 when John Glenn was launched aboard a Mercury Atlas rocket on capsule named “Friendship 7“.

There were six manned Mercury flights in all…and a few more with chimpanzees as the “pilots.” Then Project Gemini demonstrated the possibility of  rendezvousing, docking with another vessel, and that a human could work outside of the spacecraft. But once again the Soviets had beaten our own Ed White, aboard Gemini 4. Comrade Leonov was the first human being to walk in space during his mission: Voshkod II.

At the beginning of the Apollo project, a plugs out test on a Friday afternoon, saw astrounauts, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffeepersish when the pure oxygen atmosphere inside their Apollo I capsule suddenly ignited. Later it was discovered that a short in some faulty wiring had provided the catalyst for that catastrophic accident.

And that may have been the end of President Kennedy’s vision to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. But NASA paused, regrouped, redesigned and moved forward with resoluteness.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders read from the book of Genesis while in orbit around the moon. I was a small boy of only eight summers at the time, but I remember taping the reading on a reel to reel tape recorder and playing it back dozens and dozens of times. Even to this day I cannot read the opening words to the Holy Bible without thinking about that Christmas Eve when our brave Apollo astronauts paused, looked back at the earth, and read for the world, the creation account.


The following summer Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969, exactly 40 years to the day that I am writing this. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Mike Collins were headed for the moon, this time to land, and ahead of the Soviets as well.

On Sunday afternoon, July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their lunar module “Eagle” somewhere in the Sea of Tranquility. Like most everyone else in the world I was watching and heard Neil utter those words “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

When it turned dark I went outside and looked at the moon. Of course I knew I couldn’t see the lunar module, but I do remember looking up and thinking that Neil and Buzz were up there and Mike was somewhere in orbit. Truth to tell I’ve always felt sorry for Mike having to miss the whole thing. He was so close, yet so far away. Apparently he has no regrets however.

The first moon walk was scheduled for after my normal bedtime. I feared the worst that I would miss it, however my parents kindly realized that this was an event unlike any other in human history and granted me a special dispensation to stay up for it. At 10:56 pm, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. His first words are known to all, even today. “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I was frankly disappointed because the network initially showed simulation of the lunar module. It was clear and distinct, but when the live feed appeared of the first footstep it was grainy and almost indecipherable.

But at least I got to see it. My wife was not even born yet. It would be over two more years before she made her debut here on earth. Even today, even as well as we relate, the moon landing is the thing that constantly reminds me that we are not the same age.

On December 19, 1972, the mission of Apollo 17 concluded. Gene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon. All other remaining Apollo missions to the moon were cancelled and NASA followed up the moon landings with the less than spectacular Project Skylab. After a notable post-script in 1975, in which a Soyuz spacecraft and an Apollo CSM docked (the handshake in space), NASA would not launch another human into space until April 1981 when Space Shuttle Columbia was launched.

While I certainly do not belittle the achievements of our space shuttle program, I would have never guessed that 40 years after the first moon launch that we would be basically spinning our zero G wheels in low earth orbit. The Space Shuttle (STS) over the past ten years has basically existed as a way to visit the International Space Station. And the International Space Station has existed as a destination for the Space Shuttle.

Once again not to belittle the shuttle program, but what happened to the vision we once had?. Why was the Apollo program killed off so abruptly?Was it because we beat the Soviets there and therefore the race was over? Was it because it was becoming dull and routine? Was it because the politicians lacks the courage to fund the next great adventure?

What seems clear to me is we shoulda, coulda landed on Mars by now. But somehow we lacked the “right stuff” to get it done. When President George W Bush announced a goal of returning to the moon by 2020 I applauded. But we should have never left. Why don’t we have a base on the moon? We have the technology. The moon contains an abundance of helium 3, a non radioactive isotope that could be used to generate energy here on earth. Why are we not actively seeking a way to exploit that resource?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has partnered with Russia in building the International Space Station and in ferrying astronauts and supplies to the ISS, especially during the downtime following the Columbia disaster. When the shuttle fleet is retired next year we will again rely on the Russians to take us into space. Maybe, just maybe, they won the race after all.


One Response to ““We Choose to Go to the Moon””

  1. mohammad algarni Says:

    Thank you my friend

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