After viewing a black and white science fiction movie about the first men to the moon, I asked my oldest brother if he thought man would ever really set foot there. He quickly responded that he believed we would get there some day. I was nine years old and very skeptical.
Later, while watching the television program, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” Walt Disney himself, in a segment called the “World of Tomorrow”, showed us how a three-stage rocket was being considered that might be capable of carrying men into outer space. Again, I was skeptical. I just couldn’t see how such a contraption could ever work. At that time, the only jet engines in use were those on military aircraft; the Boeing 707 passenger plane was still just a sketch on the drawing boards.
In 1957 Sputnik was launched into earth orbit by the Soviets and this nation went berserk. The Russians had beaten us into space! The U.S. government determined to catch up and in order to do so, more math and science was to be force fed to the children in the public schools as well as to those students in the nation’s colleges and universities. The space race was on with a vengeance.
But it seemed that our space program was doomed to failure. Too many of our rockets either blew up on the launch pad or shortly after take off. The Russians increased their lead when they sent Yuri Gagarin into earth orbit—the first cosmonaut. The U.S. eventually perched Alan Shepard and later John Glenn on the noses of rockets and launched them into space. But still, the Russians always seemed one step ahead of us—until President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, threw down the gauntlet and announced that within the decade, the United States would send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to earth. Appealing to the nation’s spirit of adventure, to patriotic pride and to the cause of freedom, his words ignited one the greatest technological mobilizations in U.S. history.
The first Saturn V Rocket was launched on November 9, 1967. To this day, it is probably the most complex and powerful machine ever created by man. In order to be successful and to avoid disaster, every one of its thousands of intricate systems had to work together perfectly.
Saturn V stood 363 feet high on the launch pad—the equivalent of a 36-story building. Fully fueled it weighed in at a whopping six million pounds. 5.6 million pounds of that was propellant—960,000 gallons. The assembled vehicle was so heavy that when it rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, Florida, it pulverized the special gravel roadbed designed to accept its weight. Spectators had to view a launch from miles away—if it were to explode it would generate the destructive force of an atomic bomb. Its reason for being was to send men to the moon.
On July 20, 1969, millions of people all over the world held their breath while, after a lengthy break in communications, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, that had been rocketed into space aboard a Saturn V, touched down on the surface of the moon. A message was flashed back to earth: “The Eagle has landed!”
Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon, while Command Module Pilot Michael Collins orbited above.
Throughout the history of mankind, men and women have been obsessed with exploring the most remote regions of this planet. They have probed the depths of the oceans, traveled by foot, horseback and by animal-drawn conveyances to pursue the mysteries of the far blue mountains. They have traveled by dogsled to the polar ice caps. They have cut through dense jungles and thirsted across vast, dusty deserts. They have ascended the tallest mountains and descended into seemingly bottomless caves. But never in all of earth’s history had man been able to break the surly bonds of earth to explore another celestial orb. It was perhaps the crowning achievement in all of man’s history.
When the Eagle landed on the surface of the moon, I found myself in a remote Indian village in the highlands of Guatemala researching the educational system of the Maya-Quiche. I took lodging with a couple of American missionaries who were working in the area. On the eve of the moon landing, I pointed to the full moon shining brightly in the velvety clear, black heavens and informed a young Mayan woman—she was so tiny that the top of her head barely reached my waste—that that night a man was going to set foot on that moon. She looked at me as if I were totally out of my mind. Her entire world extended a day’s walk in any direction from her village. Anything beyond that was out of her realm of understanding. The next day, one of the missionaries asked me what I had told the woman. “She thinks you are one crazy norteamericano!”
Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about that unforgettable event is the fact that it was not just cheered by Americans but by diverse people in every nook and cranny on the planet. It was not just an American achievement; it was the achievement of all mankind.
I feel privileged to be living at a time in the history of the world when such a thing could not only be dreamed but could become reality. It is written that in the last days there would be “wonders in the heavens.” That is certainly coming to pass. Saturn V and Apollo 11 were just the beginning.
Where were you when the Eagle landed? I would love to hear your story.