I could watch Saturn V launches all day and often see them on youtube and wonder what it felt like to be there, to feel the power of the those five F-1 engines and hear the ear splitting sound as the enormous rocket got airborne.
Sitting at the top of that rocket, about 100m above the ground, in 1969 were three astronauts whose names will be immortalised forever, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. I was too young to have been around to witness the Apollo 11 launch or watch the grainy first steps of Neil Armstrong, not that they would have been live in New Zealand as the Air Force had to deliver the newsreel via a two and half hour flight from Sydney in a Canberra B12 bomber.
Last night I was lucky enough to be part of a panel that discussed the impact of the Moon landings on our lives and it was great to listen to the description of the atmosphere by those that got to watch it. Frank Andrews was a 30 year old researcher at that time and he told us of remembering watching Neil Armstrong’s first step on a large TV that many of the university students and staff were viewing.
My own experience of the Moon landings were that they were an amazing occurrence that my generation just missed out on. We were the Space Shuttle and Voyager generation. I still remember vividly watching the TV and seeing the launch of the first space shuttle – forlornly hoping that this was the start of something big again, like the Apollo programme, maybe those astronauts were going back to the Moon. Alas, no, they went no further than low earth orbit. Human space flight became overshadowed by the robots, who can forget those stunning images from around our solar system that graced the Weetbix cards of the 1980s, first Jupiter, then Saturn then the icy gas giants. I remember swapping the cards at school aiming to get a full set. My favourite card, though, was the picture from Viking 2 of Mars and the red surface full of rocks. This was amazing, that tiny little card depicted another world, it had a sky and a rocky ground and Viking was there sitting on it – amazing, it was if you could reach out and touch Mars.
I often wondered what it must have been like for Neil Armstrong when he hopped off that ladder, took that first step and declared to the world “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. What was he thinking when he turned around and took in that first view of the Moonscape before him, it must have been exhilarating, peaceful, yet at the same time scary as he would have been mindful of the small distance between him, in his protective spacesuit, and the totally hostile environment surrounding him. When he took that first step he was reaching the pinnacle of the human species – he was the sum total of nearly everything our species had figured out about the universe at that time.
No human before him had ever stepped on the surface of any celestial body except Earth. For the two and a half hours that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopped around on the surface of the Moon they captivated a planet. Their journey started when the first human stepped out of Africa, someone had to be first and throughout our history there was always some who did the impossible first. Hilary climbed Everest first, Amundsen went to the South Pole first, the Wright brothers flew first (or maybe Richard Pearce) and Armstrong set foot on the Moon first. On our journey out of Africa, I wonder what the next first will be.