Even in this age of instant information, and the notion that most everything useful must already have been invented or done, America’s beating the Soviets in the space race by successfully landing Apollo 11 on the moon July 20, 1969 — 50 years ago last Saturday — remains a really big deal. It was equal parts militarism, science and sport, all played out under the icy cover of the Cold War.
For millennia, human beings have gazed into the night sky at our satellite, our nearest celestial neighbor, our moon. It has been the subject of myth and legend, of music and poetry. It governs our tides and, when full, lights our nights.
It’s nearly a quarter of a million miles away. And so far, only 12 humans have set foot on it, the most recent just before Christmas in 1972.
Four of them are still living as of this writing, now in their 80s. These men walked on the moon. Hopped on it, planted a flag on it, hit a golf ball on it. Amazing.
As chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s epic novel “The Right Stuff,” our own Naval Air Station Patuxent River has had a major hand in the space program. In fact, four of the seven original Mercury astronauts were graduates of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School right here at Pax River.
Many other of NASA’s finest, from eventual Gemini and Apollo crews to space shuttle astronauts, have worked and studied in St. Mary’s County as they aimed for the stars. The naval base was their launching pad even before Cape Canaveral was.
Also, one of Southern Maryland’s biggest defense contractors built the lunar module, the craft that actually landed on — and lifted off from — the moon’s surface.
Sure, there have been some conspiracy theorists for the past half a century since Neil Armstrong first climbed down from the Eagle and put his bootprints in that gray, powdery soil. Some say it was a hoax — that it all took place in the Arizona desert or on a Hollywood back lot, and have accused NASA of doctoring photographs and fabricating the entire thing. You could say that was one of the first accusations of “fake news.”
Oh, but it happened, all right. America took President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to heart and did, in fact, make the trip successfully by the end of the decade.
A medallion left on the moon in 1969 by the Apollo 11 astronauts for who-knows-who to see reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Of course, it was easier to be so magnanimous about our intentions because we beat the Russians there.
Interest in space today is not political and militaristic, but rather scientific and economic. Space station crews from around the world regularly fly up into orbit and relieve shifts of other astronauts. Studies in orbit have examined the effects of space on the human body and other living fauna and flora. Unmanned probes have studied Mars, Jupiter and beyond — to the point that in 2006, Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union. And of course, launched satellites have become smaller and more advanced, greatly increasing our worldwide communications capabilities.
There have been some recent achievements in lunar exploration, as well as more planning and research. China sent an unmanned craft to the moon earlier this year, and transmitted the first-ever photographs from the surface of its dark side. The private company Space X is still imagining manned flights to the moon, although as more of a hook for rich tourists than anything else.
And President Trump has proposed a mission to the moon’s south pole, perhaps in 2024, partially to serve as a future staging point for a possible trip to Mars. That could be in play whether the proposed U.S. Space Force is established or not.
Also, a cache of moon rocks was planned to be opened this weekend as part of the many 50th anniversary commemorations of the first landing.
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves since first landing on the moon, and those who have made the trip are to be lauded. One news report last week estimated that it took 400,000 people working as one to put Apollo 11 on the moon. We could use some more of that creativity and teamwork these days.
And none of it could have happened without NAS Pax River. Don’t forget that as you look up at the waning crescent of a moon this weekend.