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Our first footprint on the Moon

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission, a tribute to the astronauts who made it all possible, and those who died trying.

Deepak Rikhye | Kolkata |

The Apollo 50th anniversary celebration events will be held at some of the best space museums in the US, from 16 to 20 July this year, to celebrate the first Moon landing when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity’s first steps on the Moon. Celebrations will show people the role that glass played in the historic Apollo programme, as one of many examples; in another, the role of photography will be highlighted, with presentations of the Moon from the birth of photography to the present time. Instruments and cameras that have been flown to space will also be displayed. All these records will serve as an anthology to evoke one of the most incredible accomplishments in the realm of science.

This entire awe-inspiring chapter focuses on a singular achievement: mankind’s footprint on the Moon. Jill Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer for The New Yorker, has recently articulated, in breathtaking profundity, why the marks imprinted on the Moon of Armstrong and Aldrin will in all likelihood remain permanently on the lunar surface. Lepore has evoked another academic dimension of the Moon. “The footprints are still there, the striped thread of Neil Armstrong’s boots caked into dust. There’s no atmosphere on the Moon, no wind or water. Footprints don’t blow away and they don’t wash away and there’s no one there to trample the surface. Superfast micrometeorites, miniature particles travelling at 33,000 miles per hour are bombarding the surface all the time, but they’re so infinitesimal that they erode things only at the more-or-less unobservable rate of 0.04 inches once in a million years. So, unless these footprints are hit by a meteor and blasted into a crater, they’ll last for tens of millions of years.” Depending on the actual location in space, there can be inadequate air for breathing, or it can be exceedingly hot or cold; and some areas have dangerous levels of radiation.

So when Nasa was founded in 1958, scientists were uncertain whether the human body could tolerate orbiting the Earth because space as an environment has its demands and challenges. They realised that umpteen number of situational emergencies could occur in a spaceship within seconds of launching. Various adaptations to technology were required for a successful flight and astronauts are compelled to accept these changes. The physics of space travel makes the interior of a space capsule weightless as it zooms through space. To imagine floating around in a spacecraft appears to be an exciting experience, but it may adversely impact the body; mostly due to stress of being in the most hostile of environments outside the spacecraft.

However, in 1959, Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began the Ranger Project, a mission designed to impact the Moon, or to make a planned crash landing. During its descent, the spacecraft would take pictures that would be sent back to Earth. At that time, the dynamics of engineering and mathematics related to space travel were being developed for the first time, and it took until July 1964 to accomplish such a monumental task, with Ranger becoming the first US spacecraft to impact the side of the Moon.

The Apollo programme officially began in 1963, when President John F Kennedy, directed Nasa in September 1962 to place humans on the Moon by the end of the decade. There was no hardware available to achieve this feat, so progress in this sphere of science began to crystallise. We must recall that the progress, which followed, was not without its mishaps. A project where the Apollo command module had been designed ended in tragedy in February 1967. A fire broke out in the capsule, killing three astronauts who were to be the prime crew for Apollo 1; and hence the design of the module was subsequently changed.

On 20 July 1969, while Michael Collins, astronaut and command module pilot, orbited the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the surface and set foot on our satellite, thereby accomplishing a first for mankind. They collected rock samples and planted an American flag on the surface and placed a plaque with medallions honouring the Apollo 1 crew. The plaque read, “We came in peace for all mankind.” This saga which riveted the world evoked the perennial Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” After years of patience and research, Armstrong and Aldrin bestowed upon humanity profound hope and inspiration.