One giant leap...

Ken Tapping, September 5, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • Mars and Saturn are low in the Southwest after dark. Saturn is close to the star Spica.
  • Jupiter rises after midnight at Venus around 3 a.m.
  • The Moon will reach Last Quarter on September 8.

On August 25, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, died. This sad event has triggered those of us lucky to live through the heady years of the “Space Race” to relive it all over again.

The culmination of that period came on July 20, 1969. That is when two men, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, landed on the Moon’s surface. The hatch of the lander was too small for both men to exit together, so Neil Armstrong came out first, and became the first man to set foot on the surface of another world. People all over the globe watched those rather poor video images of the space-suited astronaut climbing down the ladder and stepping out onto the Moon. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that he slightly muffed his epic lines, when he said “One small step for (a) man; one giant leap for Mankind”.

What became known as the “Space Race” was driven by politics, military one-up-manship and last but by no means least, our curiosity about the universe beyond the Earth and our desire to explore it. This “Outward Urge” is a key part of us.

None of this could have happened without the preparation of a path by pioneers in rocket development. However, the Space Race really got moving on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around the Earth. Thereafter, it seemed that every month saw the launch of another satellite. They are intended to study the Earth and its space environment, to provide better worldwide communications and many other things. Canada got into the game with Alouette; a satellite designed to study the ionosphere. These days, satellites are essential parts of our lives.

When President Kennedy announced in 1961 that the USA intended to put a man on the Moon, the technology to do so did not exist, and it was not clear what would be the best way to do it. The result was a long period of experimentation, which included the Mercury and Gemini manned space programmes, and then Project Apollo.  During trials on the ground, three astronauts, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died in a fire. There were then trials in Earth orbit, and during Christmas, 1968, Apollo 8 carried Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders safely round the Moon. In addition to the dramatic pictures they sent back of the craters and mountains of the lunar surface rolling past, the astronauts sent back a Christmas message, which included verses from Genesis. This was a very exciting couple of decades to live through.

No matter what memorial we set up for Neil Armstrong here on Earth, his real memorial is on the Moon, where, on a world without weather and running water, his footprints may last for millions of years. They are a more permanent memorial than most of us can ever hope to have. That is, unless another astronaut decides to step in his footprints. However, we will need to go back to the Moon for that to happen, and no doubt Neil would be entirely in favour of that. We need to go back.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton,  BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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