This past Wednesday, December 14th, marks the 50th anniversary since humans last set foot on the moon. The Apollo Program, which officially began in 1961, succeeded in putting humans on the moon six times. As we got more experienced with the challenges associated with sending humans to the moon, the missions grew in longevity and complexity. During Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin only spent about 21 hours on the lunar surface. And only about 2.5 hours were spent outside the lander doing extravehicular activity, or EVA. However, by Apollo 17, the lunar lander stayed on the ground for 75 hours, and spent a total of 22 hours doing EVA. Apollo 17 also carried the only scientist to go to the moon. Harrison Schmitt, a geologist from New Mexico, became the only person without a background in military aviation to walk on the moon. He later became a US Senator.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who is not familiar with Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man” quote, but much less known are the last words spoken on the moon. Before Gene Cernan returned to the Lunar Ascent Module, he uttered the lines:
America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.
As the crew of Apollo 17 left the moon, they took a now famous picture of the Earth. Dubbed “The Blue Marble”, it is a well-known image representing both the oneness and fragileness of our planet. In 2007, Gene Cernan said about the image:
“What is the real meaning of seeing this picture? I’ve always said, I’ve said for a long time, I still believe it, it’s going to be — well it’s almost fifty now, but fifty or a hundred years in the history of mankind before we look back and really understand the meaning of Apollo. Really understand what humankind had done when we left, when we truly left this planet, we’re able to call another body in this universe our home. We did it way too early considering what we’re doing now in space. It’s almost as if JFK reached out into the twenty-first century where we are today, grabbed hold of a decade of time, slipped it neatly into the (nineteen) sixties and seventies (and) called it Apollo.”
But here we are, returning to the moon in the 2020’s. This month has already seen the successful launch and return of the Artemis 1 mission. This integrated systems test of the new Space Launch System sent the uncrewed Orion capsule around the moon, and came splashing down to Earth on Sunday, December 11th. Artemis 2, planned for 2024, will be the first mission to send humans on an orbit around the moon since Apollo 17. And Artemis 3 will put boots back on the lunar surface before the end of the decade. Of course, these dates are subject to change, as challenges inevitably arise. But we are committed to going back. And not just going back to walk around and come back home. The Artemis program’s slogan is “Back to the Moon for good, and on to Mars.” We plan to set up a permanent base on the Moon, and use it to help us understand what it will take to send astronauts to Mars.
It may have taken us fifty years, but we are finally going back. The promise of exploration calls to us, and who knows what we will discover.
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