Jul 20, 2009
Forty years ago, on 20 July 1969, the human race achieved the unthinkable-landing of man on the Moon. The first step that was taken on the Moon by two astronauts of the United States of America, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr became a giant leap for mankind.
Moon, the only satellite of the earth has been fascinating human beings since ancient times. But the quest for reaching the Moon started during the middle of the twentieth century with the beginning of the space exploration that was initiated by the Soviet Russia when it placed the first manmade object, an artificial satellite named ‘Sputnik I’ in the space on 4 October 1957.
The space race, like that of the arms race, became a part of the ‘Cold War’ politics between the two super powers-the Soviet Russia and the United States of America. In this race, the Soviet Russia took the first step. However, later, in the race for the Moon, it was the United States that conquered it.
Following the successful launching of the ‘Sputnik I’ and a little later ‘Sputnik II’ by the Soviet Russia, the United States responded by launching the satellite named ‘Vanguard I’ in March 1958. As additional satellites belonging to the two super powers began to orbit the earth, the Soviet Union aimed at the Moon by sending their first spacecraft named ‘Luna I’ in 1959 that narrowly missed the Moon, and a little later ‘Luna II’ that crashed on the surface of the Moon.
Meanwhile, manned space flight became an arena of intense national competition between the United States and Russia. The Russians sent the first human being-Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961, scoring another first over the United States.
A month after Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy committed the United States to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. Kennedy believed that such an achievement would demonstrate the undeniable dominance of the space by the United States.
As the United States aimed to land the man on the Moon, Alan B. Shepard Jr became the first American to venture into the space in May 1961 and John Glen the first American astronaut to orbit the earth in February 1962. Meanwhile, the Russian sent their first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova into the space.
During 1965 and 1966, the United States launched the brilliant series of Gemini flights. In ten manned flights, the Gemini astronauts practiced rendezvous and docking with other spacecraft and walking and working in the space. Simultaneously with the Gemini flights, the United States began a series of robot missions to the Moon which surveyed it both from close-up and its surface.
Five Lunar Orbiter probes circled the Moon, making a full photographic map of both near and far sides in search of flat areas for the landing. Besides, five Surveyor crafts were also sent to the Moon that touched down on the surface of the Moon to give an astronaut’s eye view. By the time the first manned Apollo capsule flew in 1968, there was no doubt that man would be able to land on the surface of the Moon safely on certain pre-selected site.
In December 1968, for the first time, American astronauts orbited the Moon in Apollo-9 mission. Two more preparatory flights, including a full dress rehearsal in Moon orbit were needed before Apollo-11 set off with its crew of three astronauts on the mission of first landing of man on the Moon stipulated for 20 July 1969.
Apollo-11 was launched from Cape Canaveral Space Centre, later renamed as the Kennedy Space centre in Florida on 16 July 1969 by a Saturn V rocket. After travelling a distance of nearly 384,400 kilometres, Apollo-11 passed behind the Moon on 19 July 1969 and entered the lunar orbit.
On 20 July 1969, the lunar module ‘Eagle’ got separated from the command module ‘Columbia’, which was under the command of Michael Collins. The lunar module ‘Eagle’ with Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin landed safely in the Sea of Tranquility . Armstrong conveyed the message to the mission control base at Houston with the famous words, “Houston, Tranquility base here. The ‘Eagle’ has landed”.
Neil Armstrong stepping first on the Moon surface made the momentous statement, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Later, Edwin Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface of the Moon, describing the view as “magnificent desolation.” This historic feat of humankind was telecast live throughout the world.
The astronauts spoke with President Richard Nixon through a telephone-radio transmission after planting the US flag on the lunar surface. Nixon called this as “the most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”
During their stay of over two and a half hours on the surface of the Moon, the astronauts left behind scientific instruments, an American flag, a plaque bearing two drawings of the Earth, an inscription and signatures of astronauts and President Richard Nixon. The inscription read, “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon, July 1969 AD. We Came in Peace For All Mankind.” They also left behind a silicon message disk that carried goodwill statements by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and messages from leaders of 73 countries around the world.
After rendezvous with ‘Columbia’, Apollo-11 mission was on its way back from the orbit of the Moon. On 24 July 1969, the astronauts returned to the Earth splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. President Nixon was aboard the recovery vessel to personally welcome the astronauts back to Earth.
For almost three weeks the astronauts were quarantined for the fear that the Moon might contain undiscovered pathogens and the astronauts might have been exposed to them during their Moonwalks. They were given a clean chit of health and allowed to exit the quarantine on 13 August 1969 to the applause and cheers of the American people. Parades were held in their honour in different American cities. The astronauts also undertook the “Giant Leap” tour that took them to 25 foreign countries.
Thus, the Apollo-11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of placing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade of 1960s. He had expressed during a speech before a joint session of Congress on 25 May 196, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Six of the Apollo Missions- 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17, went on to land on the Moon, studying soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields and solar wind. Apollo- 7 and 9 tested spacecraft in Earth orbit wheras Apollo-10 orbited the Moon as the dress rehearsal for the first landing. An oxygen tank explosion forced Apollo-13 to abort its landing on the Moon.
The celebration of the 40th anniversary of man’s first landing on the Moon has already started in the United States since 4 July 2009, the Day of American Independence and will continue till the end of this month. President Barack Obama will host the Apollo-11 crew on Monday, 20 July 2009.
Following the end of the Cold War, the Americans and Russians have been cooperating with each other along with other countries in the exploration of the space and other planets and celestial objects in search for final frontiers of the Universe. Meanwhile, the Asian countries such as India, China and Japan have taken an interest in the possibility of landing their own men on the Moon.
India’s lunar mission ‘Chandrayaan-I’, is an attempt to reach the Moon. However, this maiden Moon probe has recently developed a malfunction that may cut short the life of the mission meant for two years. However, we should not lose heart. India has achieved quite a lot in space exploration within a short period and will definitely land a man on the Moon in the near future. As the United States celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the first landing of man on the Moon, it is important to note that the Americans too had failed many times before
achieving this feat forty years ago.
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