When Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon 50 years ago this week, the way we view our planet and its place in the vast cosmos was forever changed.
The space age was truly upon us, we realized, and the heavens seemed within our grasp.
Armstrong’s words when he stepped onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, summed up the sense of promise: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who stepped out next, planted an American flag and placed a plaque, then spent the remainder of their two-and-a-half hours taking photographs, collecting data and gathering the first moon rocks. The third member of the NASA crew, Michael Collins, remained in the spacecraft Columbia orbiting overhead.
An estimated 600 million people around the world watched the grainy black and white televised images of the landing, including 10,000 people in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow where a giant screen was set up for the event.
In terms of public fascination, the moon landing remains the high point of the space age, an era that began in the late 1950s and continues today.
It reawakened the American drive to explore and discover new places and things, and renewed our national pride during a tension-filled Cold War and the turmoil of our involvement in Vietnam.
The troubled geopolitical landscape was momentarily forgotten as a spellbound global population witnessed something known before only in imagination and dreams. It was a vision as humbling to humankind as it was exhilarating, and a first-hand experience of the wondrous universe that is God’s gift to us all.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, was 16 when he saw the landing. He said it helped him to recognize that “you feel God in the joy of the moment.”
“That the universe is logical, and the fact that there is also beauty and understanding, it is a source of joy,” he said.
St. Paul VI, the reigning pope at the time, was among those following the mission with awe, peering at the Sea of Tranquility landing site through a telescope at the Vatican Observatory.
Perhaps he hoped to spot the Eagle, the landing module that contained messages collected from religious leaders before the flight, including one personally written by him: “For the glory of the name of God, who gives men such power, we pray and wish well for this wondrous endeavor.”
The Apollo 11 mission was remarkably successful, despite a few hitches here and there, and it set the tone for space programs that followed, including five more manned moon landings, development of the International Space Station, NASA’s space shuttle and Mars Exploration Rover programs, and much more.
Will a landing on Mars be next? President Trump hinted as much in his Fourth of July speech at the Lincoln Memorial. “For Americans, nothing is impossible,” he said, citing the Apollo 11 mission as an example of American enterprise and spirit.
Turning to invited guest Gene Kranz, who was flight director for the Apollo 11 mission, Trump said, “I want you to know…someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.”
If that does happen, we hope that the first astronaut to step onto the Martian red dust will deliver a plaque with the same sentiment as the one placed by Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon: “We came in peace for all mankind.”