Forty years ago today, Apollo 11 extended mankind's reach to another world for the first time outside the pages of literature, myth or dreams. If the high-contrast black-and-white images beamed back to Earth that day could be believed, we were all witnesses to an event that had been imagined ever since our ancient ancestors looked to the moon from the familiar gravity of Earth, wondering what it would be like to be there.
When Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong descended the stairs of the lunar module on July 20, 1969, he was never out of sight. Stepping upon the dusty surface of the moon for the first time as our duly designated representative from Earth, the words he chose to commemorate the moment were nearly drowned out by the cheers of viewers glued to televisions around the world.
"That's one small step for man," Neil Armstrong said as he took his historic step to the surface, "one giant leap for mankind." Later, we would learn he stumbled over his text. It didn't matter. His gait, even in low gravity, was steady. His footprint, even if lost in a crush of subsequent footprints at the landing site, will always be iconic.
Launched from Kennedy Space Center on July 16 with Mr. Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., Apollo 11 represented the entirety of man's outrageous strivings. From the Garden of Eden and the myth of Icarus to the exploration of the New World and the dawn of the Space Age, the entire history of the species had a seat on that mission.
When the lunar module nicknamed "Eagle" touched down four days later in the area known as the Sea of Tranquility, it had less than a minute of fuel left to make a safe landing. The descent to the surface had been tense for Mission Control. With one miscalculation, the historic flight could have ended up as scattered wreckage on an alien world -- an eternal monument to mankind's hubris. But it succeeded, even beyond our wildest hopes.
For nearly 21/2 hours, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin jumped, collected moon rocks, conducted experiments and took pictures to document their achievement. Together they set up an American flag and took turns saluting it.
President Richard Nixon captured beautifully the world's sentiment in a phone call to the astronauts: "For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people of this Earth are truly one," he said. Short of first contact with an alien species, there will never be another moment like it in history.
In less than half a decade, the Apollo program would be finished. A man (or woman) hasn't set foot on the moon since the Watergate era. More pressing terrestrial concerns have squeezed out the enormous financial commitments necessary to keep manned missions to the moon a viable national option. There is talk about reviving moon missions, but America's enormous budget deficits make it unlikely we can afford to do it in the next 20 years.
Perhaps the best way to return to the moon or afford the cost of going to Mars would be to make it an international effort. China, India, the European Union, Japan and even Brazil want to be a part of the next step in space exploration. The United States should welcome the opportunity to share technology and expertise. The space race as an extension of the Cold War motivated this country to get to the moon first. We should have higher motives now to muster the will and resources needed to explore space further.
On the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk, we still have light-years to go before we rest.