This Thursday, September 13th, a public service will be held for Neil Armstrong at the Washington National Cathedral. Armstrong, the first human to set foot on another world, passed away on August 25th. He is to be buried at sea.
When interviewed on Neil’s passing, Jim Lovell, astronaut of Apollo 8 and commander of the infamous Apollo 13, said that water was, for many astronauts, the signal of a mission’s end and would go on to signal the end of life. Armstrong had a long Navy career. Flying nearly 80 combat deployments, all had return flights to the USS Essex aircraft carrier. His Gemini and Apollo missions both ended with parachute deployed splash landings into the Pacific Ocean. When returning home, it was to water. I got the news of Neil’s death by SMS as I was about to deliver a session to a group of new student-staff Residence Advisors at Simon Fraser University. Standing at the front of the lecture hall, I put moment behind me as I continued, but three thoughts that entered my mind; we have lost a very courageous man, he sparked a moment that unified the world, and we have yet to return. I was at a loss for a while to put it all into words, especially since Apollo had been brought very close to us through the interviews with NASA staff for Chasing many of whom worked directly with the rocket. I felt it easiest to express each thought individually:
Courage: “Going to space is not like going to get milk” This was one of my favorite quotes during our interviews for Chasing spoken by Charlie Mars, NASA program director and founder of the Space Walk of Fame museum. Space travel has claimed lives. In the fires of Apollo 1, three astronauts lost their lives before even leaving the earth. The Saturn V rocket was the most advanced and therefore complicated piece of machinery ever built. The vehicle is enormous. Standing inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, we saw how the structure dwarfed shuttle. Apollo cleared the VAB doors by only a few feet. The first stage created 7.5 Million Pounds of Thrust. It was essentially a giant bomb. And atop Apollo sat three astronauts. Surviving launch, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were not yet in the clear. It was 3 days travel to the moon. The vehicle supporting the team could be subject to collision with asteroids or sudden bursts or radiation from the Sun which could damage equipment or fry the crew. It was during the three-day transit that Apollo 13 was damaged by one sparking circuit which nearly killed the entire crew; one piece in 5 million that needed to operate in sequence for the mission to be successful. Upon descent to the Lunar surface, the guidance computer on the Lunar Module of Apollo 11 gave a 1202 and 1201 alarm. The alarm indicated that the computer system had become overloaded with commands. Armstrong and Aldrin also noted that the system was lagging 4 seconds behind. As a result, both astronauts were being guided by the computer into a region of large boulders. Certain of being destroyed, Armstrong took manual control of the lander and was able to steer the unit down to a safe landing zone with only 25 seconds of fuel remaining. Nerves of steel. I get nervous in rush-hour traffic never mind landing a confused space vehicle on another world knowing that if I took too long I wouldn’t have enough gas to get home. That’s a long hitchhike. Aldrin and Armstrong returned to the Lunar Lander spending just over 2 and a half hours outside the vessel. Upon re-entering, Aldrin noticed that there was damage to the circuits that re-armed the engines for ascent back to lunar orbit. Aldrin managed to fix the switch using part of a pen. Had they not MacGyvered the switch, it is possible the engine may have not re-fired. Ascent required re-docking with the orbiting command module piloted by Michael Collins. Failure to reconnect would mean not returning to Earth. Another 3 day journey before surviving the scorching heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at 15 times the speed of sound and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. Then, space germs! The team was actually quarantined because of the remote possibility that pathogens may have been acquired in space. Armstrong, put his life in the hands of experimental equipment and computers that by our standards are thoroughly archaic. Millions of things could’ve gone wrong, and people had already died in the vehicle’s development, but he made the venture and successfully put a human presence on our celestial neighbour.
Legacy: Left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew is a series of items representing what they believed to be the global unity of their venture. Included is a gold replica of an olive branch, good will statements by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, messages from leaders of 73 countries around the world, and soviet medals commemorating Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin. A plaque left on the ladder of the Lunar Module, still on the Moon’s surface, reads “We Came in Peace for all Mankind”. The landing itself was remembered as a day when the “whole world looked up.” In a statement the evening before returning to Earth, Aldrin reflects on the global effort: “”This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown … Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?'”
Yet to Return: Between 1969 and 1972 only twelve people walked on the surface of the moon. Twelve! Following the success of Apollo 11, the budget for the Apollo program, counter-intuitively, decreased. The Russians were beaten to the Moon. With the short-term goal accomplished, political forces saw that funding was re-allocated. NASA cancelled Apollo 18-20. 17 would be the last mission. NASA was also beginning to think about conserving funding for the Space Shuttle program which would become the next great human lifter to space. Now, the first man on the Moon has left us, and we have yet to return. Shuttle has also since been cancelled with no current replacement vehicle. That being said, other nations are still stepping forward to bring humans to space. Some we interviewed were greatly concerned that America was now reliant on foreign nations for travel to space. Others saw it as the natural progression of a space-focussed industry and world. And perhaps the influx of private industry into the space program will, in the near future, yet pave a way to other planets. Still I couldn’t help but feel a sadness that Armstrong was not present at the launch of our next great human venture to another world.
Why is that important? Why do we need to continue to expand outward? I will let the astronauts speak here.
In speaking of the humility engendered by space travel James Lovell said “Everything that I ever knew – my life, my loved ones, the Navy – everything, the whole world was behind my thumb.”
“We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth.” Eugene Cernan remarked of his journey to the moon.
As Neil said himself, landing on the Moon was in fact a “giant leap for mankind.” But we have since stopped after that first leap. We remain in the Moon’s shadow. I hope we continue to make the next one soon for as we take these steps to new worlds we come to a better understanding of our own.
In memory of Neil, I ventured out on our tallest residence tower here at Simon Fraser University and took my first ever astrophotography shots through my new scope. With all the gear I needed finally assembled, I thought this would be the appropriate time. The first image I took is of the Moon, the image at the beginning of this post. May you rest peacefully.