Tuesday, July 20, 2010

41 years and counting

41 years ago today humans walked on another world for the first time... ever. There won't be another time that we'll ever be able to say that. The picture I've included here (and you can link to a higher resolution version if you click on the title) was the first image taken by Neil Armstrong after planting his bootprint into the alien soil. You can see one of the Lunar Modules landing gear legs as well as a white "jettison bag" laying under the LM. You can see one of the landing gear probes bent upward - one of the 3 probes (there wasn't one on the front leg to keep from interfering with the astronauts descent to the surface) that contacted the surface first during the descent which triggered a light in the cockpit telling the astronauts they were within about 6 feet of the surface and could turn off the descent engine.

I remember what I was doing when Armstrong took this picture. I was not quite 9 years old and sat transfixed in front of our black and white TV, watching the events a quarter million miles away in awe. Were the images fuzzy because of our TV or because they were being beamed from the distant orb that I could see in the sky? Probably both.

On this 41st anniversary, it is a bittersweet time. Our nation has decided to back off of its ambitious goals of returning to the Moon. After Apollo 11 and the 5 lunar landings that followed, we have retreated and lost our initiative, investing our incredible capabilities almost exclusively on planet Earth. We've lost our vision and drive to go out there and see what there is to see. We've been limited to sending unmanned probes to other planets and while they have returned remarkable image and data, we have not layed human eyes on an alien landscape since December 1972.

There are so many reasons we should get back out there beyond low Earth orbit. One of the best reasons is one of inspiration. When humans do the impossible, it inspires the rest of humanity to do more with their lives. I am one of many who was inspired by Apollo to reach for higher goals and in my case, I was inspired to become an Astronomer. Countless others went into fields of endeavor such as engineering, science, art, theater. With all the bad images we see on the news of war, terrorism, natural and manmade disasters, we need things like human exploration beyond Earth to help inspire our youth to what we might still think is the impossible.

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