The decisive moment came on July 21, 1969, according to NASA’s flight log. The Apollo 11 lunar module, better known as the Eagle, had one last “burn” to make to thrust astronauts Neil Armstrong and Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin from the moon back to the command module, which was orbiting 60 nautical miles above the great gray orb below.
Fellow crew member Michael Collins was piloting the CM, anxiously waiting for the Eagle to fire up at 1:54 p.m. Fear ran through his brain as the moment drew closer, he said. What if Eagle’s ascent propulsion system, a.k.a. its engine, failed to ignite? It was a very real possibility. No one knew precisely what would happen. It was all, until then, theoretical. No one had ever before tried to lift off a celestial body other than Earth.
If the engine failed, Armstrong and Aldrin would have had no way to leave the moon, and Collins no ability to go get them. With relatively little oxygen remaining in their supply, the two would have soon asphyxiated.
Collins fretted over what he might do in that case. How could he return to Earth knowing that he had left his fellow crew members to die terrible deaths?
But the engine fired, and the lunar module shot up, reaching a vertical speed of 80 feet per second at 1,000 feet above the surface. At 5:35 p.m., it reunited with the command module, and Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins went down in history as the first three humans to pilot a ship to the moon and back.
Nearly 50 years have passed since so many people around the world waited, with lumps in their throats, for the return of these three American heroes. I wasn’t among those wondering and worrying. I had, only weeks earlier, turned 2. I have no memory of the heady days between July 16, when Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and July 24, when it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 900 miles southwest of Hawaii.
That’s why I was thankful to hear Collins, now 88, recount the action during a panel discussion, “The Right Stuff: What It Takes to Go Boldly,” at the 2019 World Science Festival at NYU last Friday. I attended with my son, Andrew, who shares my fascination with space.
Joining Collins on the panel were retired modern-era astronauts Scott Kelly and Leland Melvin, and Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales for Blue Origin, the sub-orbital space-flight company founded and owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Miles O’Brien, science correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” moderated.
When the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon and returned alive, they set our species on a new course. The feat was a miracle of human ingenuity that gave us a sense that outer space was possible — that we could reach beyond our own heavens and escape our own gravitational pull to reach another celestial body.
“Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place,” the Blue Origin website now reads.
Yet, one must wonder, are we moving too fast? That might seem like a strange question, given that only 24 astronauts — all American — have made the trip to the moon and back, and only 12 have actually set foot on it. We haven’t made the nearly half-million-mile journey since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
The wildly ambitious Apollo program, though, set the stage for the current, rapidly accelerating era of space flight. Three private companies — Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic — are racing to capture the emerging space tourism industry, which promises to send humans on regular suborbital flights 62 miles above the Earth. Meanwhile, NASA officials hope to sometime soon construct a lunar outpost that could be used to blast the first astronauts to Mars, perhaps as early as the 2030s. If we go to the red planet, the venture will likely be public-private partnership between the federal agency and one or all of the major private space-flight companies.
Blue Origin, whose motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” — Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously” — sees millions of people living in space, according to Cornell. When exactly that will happen, she couldn’t say.
I’ve long thought we should focus on fixing our myriad problems on Earth before we venture too far into space. We first need to understand how to live in peace here and protect our environment here before we screw it all up elsewhere. It appears, however, that the ship — spaceship, that is — has sailed. We are on our way to the stars — or at least to Mars, our second-closest neighbor. (Venus is closer.)
Regardless, one must admire the Apollo 11 astronauts’ bravery. Before Friday, I had never considered the sheer solitude that Collins must have felt soaring above the moon all by himself. When the command module passed over the moon’s dark side, the ship lost all radio contact for 47 minutes.
Collins made that orbit, alone, 18 times. Talk about the right stuff.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.