Forty nine years ago, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon and proclaimed, ‘One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.’ That about summed up the epic tale of man’s quest for a wider world out in space. For the entirety of the 1960s, and especially since the launch of the unmanned Soviet spacecraft Sputnik in the late 1950s, human endeavour had fundamentally been riveted on the race, for so the quest had become for Moscow and Washington, to the moon. The moon had turned into a symbolic representation of the new frontier that man was expected to conquer. It was an adventure that appealed to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The youngest man ever to be elected President of the United States, Kennedy promised Americans in May 1961 that their country would send a man to the moon and have him return safely to earth within the decade.
The job would not be an easy one. As the Soviets with their cosmonauts and the Americans with their astronauts made one big move after another to gain increasingly wider swathes of space, not to say beat each other in the frantic hurtle to the moon, mishaps occurred along the way. Good cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin and good astronauts like Grissom, Chafee and others perished. Unmanned spacecraft cruised toward the moon, sometimes crashing and yet at times coming to a stop in lunar spots that had strange names. Think of the Sea of Tranquillity here. Men walked in space. In the matter of the ancient gods of legend, they saw the earth below them, with its varying shades of beauty. It was a beautiful planet, evocative of the biblical. And it was the biblical that came to Frank Borman as he and his fellow astronauts on Apollo-8 approached the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, went behind it, to its dark side and re-emerged to remind us on earth of God and His Creation. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .’Thus did Borman intone and men and women on earth were reminded anew of the glory of the Lord of the Worlds.
In more ways than one, the journey to the moon, the preparations for it, brought poetry and science together in a beautiful combination of the heart and the mind. Old poetry on the lunar orb was recalled; and then came all those tales of the difference science had made in human life over the centuries. By the time July 1969 came round, America and with it the rest of the world was ready to send a man to the moon and have him come back home safely to earth. Apollo 11, the spacecraft destined to carry the first men to the moon, lifted off from Cape Kennedy on 16 July 1969. Of the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin were to descend to the Sea of Tranquillity, with Michael Collins remaining in the command module and circling the moon until the end of the mission and the return of his colleagues for the journey back to earth. Four days later, on 20 July, the Eagle landing craft cruised lower and lower as it made its way from the command module and toward the surface of the moon. A world waited in breathless suspense. And then came that statement that is now part of history. Through radio and television, millions across the world heard the crackling sounds that accompanied Neil Armstrong’s announcement of the moon landing. It was now official. “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The rest is history. Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle and gingerly stepped on the moon, almost floating owing to gravitational factors. Gravity on the moon is one-sixth that of the earth, which was why people on earth saw, or thought they saw, Armstrong and Aldrin, who followed him to the moon soil only seconds later, move around in the manner of kangaroos. Together the two men planted the American flag on the moon; and they had a hard time of it, needing to dig into the soil, deep enough to keep the flag standing. Then they went around, collecting lunar soil, almost in the manner of children happy to be out in the open. They placed a plaque on the moon, on behalf of the earth. It reads:
“Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
President Richard Nixon called to congratulate the astronauts on their spectacular achievement.
Life would never be the same again. Not even poetry would sing paeans to the moon it had serenaded for centuries. The bigger truth, though, was that man had triumphed. All men were, in that summer of discovery, brothers on the earth together, brothers who knew they were truly brothers. Archibald MacLeish was in fashion.