To the Moon and back | Daily News


To the Moon and back

One small step for (a) Man, but a giant leap for Mankind. That is how the late Neil Armstrong described his first footsteps on the Moon, exactly 50 years ago to this day. History was written in the sands of the Moon (and books on Earth), when Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 NASA astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another celestial body on July 20, 1969 while their colleague Michael Collins orbited overhead. The event was broadcast live on TV networks around the Earth, as billions watched transfixed by Man’s first foray to another world.

Just 10 more NASA astronauts would follow in their footsteps by walking on the Moon. The last human to set foot on the Moon was Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan on December 14, 1972. NASA’s first trip to the Moon and back was the culmination of the “Space Race” between the USA and the Soviet Union, which was the first to send a satellite (Sputnik) and a living being (Laika the Dog) to Space. They were also the first to send a man to orbit – Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

With the Cold War in full swing, the USA simply could not look the other way and let the Russians take the lead. In the historic “we choose to go to the Moon” speech made on September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy urged all Americans to back the Apollo Space Programme (named after Apollo, the Greek God of Light, Music, and the Sun) which aimed to send a Man to the Moon and bring him back safely. The seeds of Apollo were however sown during the previous Eisenhower administration (early 1960) and Kennedy himself suggested the idea in a speech to the Congress in 1961.

“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 organise 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 we intend to win,” said Kennedy, who would be assassinated just 14 months later.

However, Kennedy was careful not to mention the Space Race, saying “there is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again”.

“This decade” was a very tight timeframe and even when Kennedy was alive, it meant that the USA would have to send a Man to the Moon within just eight-nine years. NASA accepted the challenge and Kennedy’s Presidential successors as well as the wider political establishment supported it to the hilt. The Apollo programme had an inauspicious start when the entire crew of Apollo 1 died in a pre-launch cabin fire. However, subsequent missions were carried out without a hitch – Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, taking the now iconic pictures of the Earth as a Blue Planet in space.

Apollo 13 was the only lunar mission that was aborted midway, due to an oxygen tank explosion but the three astronauts returned to Earth safely. This mission was later immortalized in the Ron Howard movie classic Apollo 13 (1995). There are also many movies about Apollo 11.

Thanks to these manned and subsequent robotic missions by several countries, we know more about the Moon than Earth’s own oceans. India plans to send its Chandrayaan-2 probe to the Moon soon, after an aborted launch last week. But the fact is that no one has set foot on our nearest planetary body since 1972. In fact, there is already talk of bypassing the Moon altogether for a manned mission to the Red Planet by at least 2035.

But NASA is harbouring hopes of sending people back to the Moon by 2024, which is just five years away. That deadline has been set by the White House, though there are many technical, technological, political and financial challenges in the way. The new effort called Artemis after Apollo’s twin will perhaps explore the possibility of establishing a permanent base on the Moon. NASA will be working with private companies to make this project a success.

Other countries are getting in on the action too. China is making progress towards landing astronauts on the Moon by mid-2030s. The country has launched a series of uncrewed lunar missions over the past decade, and in January its Chang’e-4 probe became the first spacecraft from any nation to land on the Moon’s far side. Four more robotic missions will follow, starting with Chang’e-5, which could bring back Moon rock and soil. Further down the line, there could be opportunities even for mining the Moon. We have always been fascinated with the Moon, our nearest neighbour in space. There is no doubt that we must go back to it on a permanent basis as it could one day be our launch pad to the rest of the universe.

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