OGDEN — In the gritty summer of 1969, the U.S. was torn with racial discord, political unrest and social upheaval. But for a brief time, an awestruck nation came together as two of its astronauts set foot on the moon.
On July 20, 1969, the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the moon’s surface, and several hours later Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exited the spacecraft and spent the next few hours bounding around, collecting rocks and other stuff.
Televised worldwide, Armstrong’s first step onto the moon was accompanied by his declaration of “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Brad Carroll, a retired Weber State University physics professor, remembers that day vividly. About two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Carroll had just finished his second year of college and was home for the summer in Anaheim, California.
“I think I was stunned. It was one of those events that is so big that you’re not even sure you’re seeing it, and you don’t know how to react,” Carroll said. “After they landed, it was several hours before the hatch opened. And I remember going outside and looking up at the moon, knowing there were people up there and this was a watershed moment for the human race.”
That feat made a big impression on Carroll, possibly changing the trajectory of his life.
“I don’t know when I decided to become an astronomer,” Carroll said, noting he went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics. “But I think the moon landing (Apollo 11) showed me that there were people actually doing these amazing things — and that I could go on and study space, which eventually I did.”
Vision, political will
In an address to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy introduced the goal of “landing a man on the Moon by the end of this decade and returning him safely to the Earth.” Tragically, his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 prevented him from seeing that happen.
Through December 1972, five more Apollo missions also put astronauts on the moon, bringing the total to 12 men who set foot on the lunar surface.
Salt Lake City-based attorney Mike O’Brien had just finished 2nd grade in Ogden in 1969, and in a recent blog shared memories about the “lunacy” the moon walks seemed to unleash since they coincided with his parents’ marriage falling apart.
“I saw it all on our grainy black and white TV screen,” O’Brien blogged of the Apollo 11 broadcast. “The moon walks continued through 1972, ending with the Apollo 17 mission.”
O’Brien described the three years of his life between 1969 and 1972 as ”a turbulent rocket ship ride, my own personal version of the ill-fated and explosive Apollo 13 mission.”
That 1970 spaceflight encountered a dangerous equipment malfunction which aborted its moon landing, but its three-member crew managed to make it back to earth alive.
Fifty years after Apollo 11’s epic accomplishment, O’Brien’s recollection has softened: “I try not take Neil Armstrong’s actions quite so personally or quite so negatively ... He and his colleagues were heroic. And he was right back in 1969, big things were afoot for mankind, and many of them were good for many people.”
“Before my time,” Weber State physics professor John Armstrong said of those momentous moon walks. Armstrong also directs the Ott Planetarium on Weber’s campus.
Born in 1972, Armstrong remembered hearing plenty about the initial landmark event from his father and grandfather, both engineers by profession.
“My dad used to always tell this story ... that when Kennedy made his big speech, my grandfather made this big deal about how he’d never see a man land on the moon in his lifetime,” Armstrong said. “And then eight years later they did, and my grandfather got to see it and never got over it. They were both so impressed.”
In retrospect, Armstrong said he was particularly struck by the sheer audacity of the effort: “It really could have gone very badly. There were lots of things that could have gone wrong -- and when you think about everything that did go wrong, the fact that we did it is just miraculous.”
But he also remembers having the sense that space travel would one day be routine.
“The idea was that by the time I would go to college, I could go to school on the moon if I wanted to,” Armstrong said. And that notion helped spur his interest in all things astrophysical.
“That whole time while I was growing up, it was like we were on the next step of doing something amazing,” Armstrong said.
West Jordan resident Wyatt Frampton, who teaches in a veterinary assistance program in the Jordan School District, was seven years old at the time of Apollo 11. He remembered watching the Moon landing broadcast with extended family in Magna.
“My grandfather was there,” Frampton said. “He was born in 1907 when horse and buggy were about the only way to get around … he was thrilled about it.”
But then everybody was, Frampton added. “It was a goal the nation had set and we did it. We need big goals like that again.”
Risk vs. gain
The Challenger disaster in 1986 that killed all seven crew members helped fuel changes in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s approach to space exploration. For one thing, robots replaced humans to help reduce risk and cost.
“What NASA has done with robotic missions is just amazing,” Armstrong said. “We’ve visited every planet in the solar system. Mars missions have gone from even odds that you’re probably going to fail to nearly routine — we’re doing them all the time.”
But perhaps the biggest lesson, he believes, was that “human space flight is a lot harder than we thought it was.”
Sending humans to the International Space Station in low earth orbit has become almost commonplace during the past two decades, Carroll noted, as has robotic exploration of Mars.
“We’ve had a number of little artificial humans roaming around Mars, taking pictures, climbing mountains, drilling into rocks and things like that,” Carroll said.
But placing people on Mars involves much more risk.
“I think there definitely should be international cooperation,” Carroll said, “because it’s really too big an effort for one nation”
Armstrong pointed to the vast difference in travel time to the moon and Mars.
“The nice thing about the moon is if something goes wrong you’re home in three days.” But a round trip to Mars takes 18 months, he said, noting he subscribes to NASA’s approach of establishing a base on the Moon, making that trip fairly routine, and then “working our way up.”
However, one-way trips to Mars — where travelers don’t come back — could be accomplished much sooner.
“If we do what Elon Musk and a couple of others have been suggesting ... we could send people next year,” Armstrong said. “But if we’re serious about protecting their lives and bringing them home, that’s a much trickier thing.”