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Column: ‘One small step...’
Martin Cahn (2019).jpg
Martin L. Cahn

I was living in Kabul, Afghanistan, when Apollo 11 lifted off from Florida and landed on the Moon several days later.

To this day, however, I can’t remember if I was awakened from a late afternoon nap on July 16 or very late on the night of July 20. I was only 4 years old, and there’s a 8-1/2  hour (or 7-1/2 hour, depending on the season) time difference between Cape Kennedy and Kabul.

My dim memory seems to recollect my being called into my father’s den to listen to either the launch or the landing via a shortwave radio.

Or did I actually watch one or the other on TV, but just can’t remember?

In truth, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it happened, in my lifetime. Fifty years ago this week, Apollo 11 launched from Earth and landed on the Moon.

For decades, thanks to film, video tape and (now) digital recordings, I have watched the launch and, perhaps even more importantly, CBS News Achor Walter Cronkite’s almost speechless reaction to reporting that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had landed safely on the Moon, with Michael Collins orbiting above them.

How can we forget? “The Eagle has landed.”

How can we forget Neil Armstrong’s first footfall on the lunar surface? “That’s one small step for Man, one giant leap for mankind.” (I’m not going to get into whether he said “a man.”)

For the next four years, we sent six more manned missions to land on the Moon. In each case, only two of the the three astronauts would actually set foot on our lone celestial satellite. That’s a total of 12 men. It would’ve been 14 had Apollo 13 made it instead of having to turn back. The last man to set foot on the Moon was Eugene Cernan on Dec. 11, 1972.

A combination of economic (the 1970s oil crisis), political and other factors led the government and, therefore, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to change its priorities from manned missions to the Moon to Skylab (the precursor to today’s International Space Station, or ISS), the Space Shuttle program, and robotic missions to other parts of the solar system and beyond.

For most of my life, I have been dazzled by the images those robotic probes have sent back from Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and even Pluto (which will always be a planet to me).

But... in my mind, they pale in comparison to what should have been. More men -- and women -- landing on the Moon, going on to Mars and onward from there.

Forty six and a half years have gone by since Cernan left the Moon. Without taking anything away from Skylab, the Space Shuttle missions, the ISS, the rovers on Mars and so on, imagine what we could have done if we had continued to send people to the Moon and on to Mars. More than four and a half decades worth of progress that never was.

Would we have NASA-staffed bases on the Moon and Mars by now? Maybe.

Ironically, it’s perhaps more difficult to get a manned mission going now that it was in the 1960s and 1970s. The irony comes from the fact that the current White House administration wants to send people, including a woman, back to the Moon by 2024 -- a scant five years from now. The entire program is called Artemis.

Many in the mainstream media are calling this “Apollo on steroids” and saying it’s too ambitious for such a short timeframe. The nay-sayers may be right as it calls for use of a new space capsule called Orion atop a launch system more power than Apollo’s Saturn V, and the development of a “mini-space station” orbiting the Moon called Gateway.

None of these things are on schedule, according to multiple reports I read.

Not that this should deter us. I firmly believe we must send humans back out into space, to other planets, and on to other solar systems.

My hope is that Artemis can be achieved. It just might take longer than we’d like it to.

It would be great to, in my lifetime, hear that another Eagle has landed on the surface of Mars; Jupiter’s moon, Europa; or some other fascinating place as we continue reaching for the stars.