Astronaut Neil Armstrong's passing today, marks the end of an era, the first flush of Space exploration, which Mankind attempted, after the amazing 1957 Sputnik launch, beginning in the West, on May 25, 1961 with President Kennedy's Promise to the world.
On that day, the President addressed Congress and put it to them that it was time for the country to pursue a new and exciting path, but a dangerous and expensive one too. He told them (in part):
"First, 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
Earlier that year,the 12th day of April 1961, the Russians had launched Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, where he completed an orbit of the Earth before returning safely to Earth.
Previous to the President's message, by a couple of weeks, as described in Wikipedia, the Mercury Program had launched a man into space:
"On May 5, 1961, (Alan) Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 mission and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space." It was a suborbital flight, and lasted only 15 minutes, but it galvanised the interest of the nation, and caught the attention of many other nations, Canada included. I remember watching some of the Mercury launches, and then the Gemini launches, and finally the Apollo launches.
Sure enough, by the end of the decade, in 1969, the US was ready to launch a manned mission to the Moon, including a landing. On July 20th 1969, a momentous day in NASA's history, in US history and in the history of the entire world, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin piloted their LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) from a lunar orbit, after separating from the Apollo command module "Columbia", and landed on the Moon, after which they got out, one after the other and walked on the moon.
It was brave and resourceful men and women like these astronauts and their backup teams who made it possible for them to travel to distant worlds, who inspired at least one generation of young people to pursue careers in Science, Engineering, and in Space Exploration. Many of the astronauts today, would likely point to Neil Armstrong, and his partner, Buzz Aldrin as their first major inspiration for becoming astronauts, and I'm sure that a lot of scientists working on the various exploration missions on Moon and Mars, and in Deepest space, were inspired by this mission as well, not to mention of course the other missions leading up to it, and the ones that followed, the stuff of legends.
I remember so well, sitting on that hot summer evening in a first floor, or basement classroom, at the University of New Brunswick. I was there participating in the "Summer Science Program", a six week program exploring various sciences and mathematics for students interested in those. There we all were, young people from all over Canada, just graduated from high school....about to head into university. It was a fascinating time, with the opportunities to meet many young people from all over, and to meet various scientists and professors, including the current (at the time) head of the Science Council of Canada, a Mr. McTaggart-Cowan, who as I remember spent his lecture talking about defending our precious fresh water from the inevitable commercial deals that the US would want to foist on us, eventually, as they ran out. We students were people of many different ethnicities there, with surnames from all over the globe, and appearances to match. It was wonderful to be a part of such a ferment of minds!
There we were, all of us students, and our "counsellors" (chaperones more like) in the hushed and sweltering semi darkness of a summer classroom, intently watching, with bated breath, as the Lunar landing module detached from the Apollo Command module, and then drifted down, firing rockets as necessary, landing, miraculously, perfectly. When it landed, and the famous words were uttered: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." (the Lunar Module's code name was "EAGLE"), the room burst out into a loud cheer, many people, including me, were in tears, with this magnificent and historic accomplishment.
And then after some time, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar lander module, and uttered the second set of immortal words, the "one small step" quote: "At the bottom of the ladder, Armstrong said "I'm going to step off the LEM now" (referring to the Apollo Lunar Module). He then turned and set his left boot on the surface at 2:56 UTC July 21, 1969, then spoke the famous words "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
The cheering and the tears of joy were tremendous at that announcement, both at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral before and now), and all across America, and indeed all across the whole world, except for the Iron Curtain countries, who were our competitors, we being the western democracies. Everyone at the science program who watched that event will remember it to this day as one of the seminal moments in their lives. At least it was for me.
At that time I was already interested in Astronomy (not realising just how math based it was: yes it was naive). As well I was interested in Cosmology, and distant civilisations and stuff like that. Likely this arose from reading too much science fiction.
Discovering later though that my mind was not suitable for the astronomer's life, I switched to the other great exploration MUSIC: exploration of the human soul, through sound: melody and rhythm. Nevertheless, the love of astronomy and cosmology, and physics in general never left me. Now I like to explore them through Jyotish, and Vedanta.
I was one of those kids (a Canadian yet!) who loved President Kennedy, rooting for him when he got elected, and impressed by his wise and eloquent words when he would hear speeches that Kennedy gave. The President's speech in which he promised that America would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade (60's) was particularly stirring to my imagination.
Already National Geographic magazine came out in those days soon after the speech with pictures of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and the Apollo capsule that would remain up there in orbit, and the great Saturn V rockets who lifted the whole experiment off the surface of the Earth and sent it hurtling to the Moon. This was awe-inspiring for me at the time, having gotten up early in the morning so many times with my brother and mom, to watch first the Mercury, then Gemini, and then Apollo liftoffs. I remember that I even got one of those "Revell" plastic models of the Gemini module, perched on top of its gigantic rockets, my interest in the space program was so intense. I remember following the Space program quite closely in those days, those amazing times back then, before it all got so hum drum, and everyday, even though liftoffs are still equally dangerous as they ever were. Our heroes were Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Alan Mitchell, and the Russian Cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin for example, and after this Moon mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as well as many more Astronauts, whose names I do not at the moment remember.
Several years earlier, (over a decade actually), we watched Sputnik go overhead after it was launched, in 1957, and that was something to see, that little gleaming little speck of light fly by in the heavens. My dad took me out to see it one clear summer evening. That was an awesome sight, and a bit scary, because Sputnik was a RUSSIAN satellite, and everyone in the west was terrified that the Russians would acquire "Space Power" before the Yankees did. That would have been a major disaster, as we "knew" they could use the space satellites to rain down nuclear bombs and to spy on us. They were scary times, especially when you lived not so far from the Trail Cominco smelter, where they had been making "Heavy water" for the WWII war effort towards the atomic bomb. In our paranoid minds, at least, Trail was thus a Russian Target, a strategic one.
As a young kid in the early 60's I remember listening to CBC radio all the time, and there were lots of radio dramas on in those days. A lot of those dramas were about the inevitable Nuclear War, WWIII, and what would happen when the Russian ICBMs arrived, or the gigantic Russian bombers, like the US B-52's that flew for SAC (Strategic Air Command), and blew our world to radioactive smithereens. There was constant talk on the radio, and in magazines, about building Atomic Bomb shelters, and Radioactive fallout, and Strontium 90, and so on. They used to measure the Strontium 90 content of the snow when it fell in the winter. Sometimes the levels were too high, and we couldn't eat the snow. Then there was Hanford, the Yankee Atomic plant, just south of the border, that was being used to concentrate Plutonium for making Nuclear warheads, another prime target for the Russians. They were exciting but paranoid times. In America there were "Communists" behind every tree....ready to betray their country to the "Reds". The Space Race was an important part of this Atomic weapons arms race that the West and the East blocs were indulging themselves in.
As a kid I remember being terrified of the "imminent" nuclear war, and I remember having many terrible nightmares about the whole thing: dreams of being invaded, large armies of foreign soldiers, dreams of huge aircraft overhead, bombing and dropping troops. So of course, because of this ever present danger, we were loyal allies of our "big brother", Uncle Sam, who was our only protection in the whole world against those nasty Reds in the USSR, and we enthusiastically rooted for America's Space program just as if we too were Americans.
Thus even we Canadians took a personal interest in keeping a close and enthusiastic eye on the various Rocket programs. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were all vitally interesting to us, not to say vitally important in the Space Race to beat the Russians to the Moon.
Sadly, Neil Armstrong's death marks the passing of an whole era, an era of enthusiastic scientific and exploratory endeavours, backed by a country's youthful optimism and faith in the wonders of Science.
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