Apollo 11: What the First Men on the Moon Mean to us

Fifty years ago, an epic voyage was undertaken which will be etched in human memory forever as one of the most pivotal events in history. It was Apollo 11, the 1969 mission to send the first human beings to land on the Moon and return back. The successful completion of the mission amazed the entire world and captured the hearts and imagination of people everywhere. It still continues to do so, as in 2019 the world observes the half-centenary of the first Moon landing with great enthusiasm.

Three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins, were on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft, which blasted off on top of a powerful Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969, the fiftieth anniversary of which has been accompanied by a lunar eclipse. It was on July 20, after four days of hurtling through space, that the lunar module Eagle, which separated from the main craft, touched down on the surface of the Moon, and out of it stepped Neil Armstrong, to be the first man to set foot on the lunar landscape, followed shortly afterwards by Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in the command module Columbia, waiting to rejoin his fellow astronauts 21 hours later. Hence, that day has gone down in history as one so important as to be a turning point for humanity. We thus spent 20 July, 2019, the anniversary of the very moon landing itself, with the commemoration the event is due.

On July 24, after 9 days of their unprecedented voyage far out into space, the Apollo 11 astronauts finally returned to their home planet Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean, and received acclaim far and wide from their fellow human beings. July 24 is therefore now the conclusion of our half-centenary commemorations as well.

The Apollo 11 landing, which would be followed in the next few years by more moon landings, was part of America’s Apollo space program, an ambitious project under NASA to compete with the Soviet Union in the Space Race to put the first man on the Moon. America first pledged to aim for that goal in 1961 under its new, young President John F. Kennedy and it succeeded just eight years later. It was a victory for America, a moment that gained the country immense prestige on the world stage. But it was also much more than that. The first moon landing meant something profound for people everywhere, a victory for the entire world in a way. Once the Apollo mission was completed, it became clear that it was not just an American achievement, it was not just an achievement of Western civilization, it was an achievement of humanity and one that we can consider the greatest ever.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even with the passing of half a century, it still grips our imagination and inspires us. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is being spent not only with celebration of the epic voyage but with extensive reflections and discussions revolving around it.

We are now in a time when there is a renewed push for space travel in countries around the world. Humanity continues to harbor the ambition to travel into space and to go further, where none have gone before. For current and future generations of space enthusiasts, Apollo 11 remains a pivotal event. It is the most important milestone in space travel. The 60s, the golden age of space exploration, saw many milestones, such as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and Apollo 8, the first crew to orbit the Moon. But the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon was the first time ever that human beings landed on another world besides Earth.

As we remember that unprecedented feat, there are a lot of questions for us to ponder. Why did America strive to send men to the Moon? What did it accomplish? What is the legacy of Apollo? People have debated these questions since the Space Race began. Now, in the fiftieth year since that Race concluded, it is worth our while to focus again on the meaning of the landing of men on the Moon and to realize how it is important.

On the face of it, going to the Moon offered little in the way of practical significance. Yet, the regard that most people hold it in is enormous. The Apollo 11 moon landing is one of the biggest events of our historical memory and we, in fact, consider it to be without equal in a way. It was a big deal for the entire world when it happened and the importance people attach to it has only grown over the decades. It may be because the first moon landing was not just a milestone for the human race, a new height of achievement. It could be considered also as the moment that the very human race itself transformed.

The human race has always been supposed to exist by certain principles. One of them is that it only inhabits Planet Earth. For as long as we existed, we were bound to the surface of the Earth by its gravitational force, only able to gaze at the vast expanses of space and its innumerable worlds beyond. On July 20, 1969, that changed. We could tread on one of ‘those’ other worlds and the way was now clear for us. The moon landing signaled that there was no limit to where we could ultimately go.

It is not just the whole endeavor. It is not just that day. It is the very moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Before, no human being had ever stood on any object not on the Earth or from it, any object existing naturally in outer space. And then Armstrong stepped down from the ladder and his left foot touched lunar soil. Humanity then became a race existing beyond just one world and that mattered in every which way. This is why Neil Armstrong’s first words while stepping onto the Moon were “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

It sent the whole of humanity a message that there was nothing out of bounds for us, no milestone we could not reach. For Americans, their country’s position as the leader in human progress was consolidated, but for everyone, it was clear that there was no limit to the progress that could be made. And what else do human beings have the desire to progress in more than travel and exploration? Learning and discovering is another innate human desire and Apollo also offered its fair share of that. Also, we were drawn to Apollo because no other endeavor had been so difficult and so vast in scale and, at the same time, so novel. Finally, the Apollo moon landing offered a picture of the shape of things to come. It cleared a path for us to continue to push forward into the unknown and we still intend to tread that path.

At the same time, beneath the marvels of both outer space and man’s endeavor to travel into it, there are hard realities that we have to grapple with. The first landing on the Moon itself only changed the world in spirit but not in any concrete way. As a result, there have existed doubts that it is worth the honor we give to it. The cost of the Apollo space program was enormous and that combined with the lack of practical benefit to be derived from reaching the Moon meant that the whole venture was controversial in many ways. Back then, there were many who considered it to be a diversion of resources that could be used for bettering people’s lives and solving serious problems down on Earth. They thought of it as a distraction and a burden on the world, especially for America and its people. Such concerns contributed to the decline of America’s travels into deep space after 1972. Decades later, we have mostly forgotten about those issues surrounding the extensive space program that existed before then, but these are questions that space exploration still poses.

To make sense of this, we have to understand the context in which the world’s focus on going into space, 1957-1972, too place. America was heavily involved in its space program throughout a decade in which it had many other issues to deal with. With widespread protests, unrest, and tensions occurring continuously across the country over the Civil Rights movement, inequality, poverty, the counter-culture, and the Vietnam War, the sixties were a difficult decade for America. The entire Space Race also came in the midst of a difficult century for the world, as the 1900s, from beginning to end, were a time when war, violence, conflict, upheaval, tensions, and oppression raged unbridled across the globe. The race to the Moon took place in the aftermath of the very worst of this, the Second World War, and while the world was at risk of a third world war that could wipe out humanity.

Such was the reality down on Earth while men were pushing into outer space. Against this backdrop, space exploration had complex meaning. It could be considered a diversion from certain problems but also served as a solution to others, the main issues of the century in fact. By focusing on a competition to master space travel, the participants of the Cold War were led away from their urge for violence and confrontation. The Space Race represented a new path for the world after the carnage of WW2, a path in which achievement could drive history instead of conflict. The Apollo space program could be seen as a respite from the issues and squabbles people were faced with on Earth. It represented the purity of humanity’s efforts to advance and further its collective boundaries.

There were also many other real benefits of the rush into space, benefits that continue today. By going to the Moon, mankind’s scientific knowledge was expanded. We got to know a lot more not only about the Moon itself but the entire solar system and its history, since the Moon, being an essentially unchanging world, serves as a record of its neighborhood. The main contribution of Apollo, of course, was in technology. In order to land men on the Moon, tremendous technological advancements had to be made in a very wide variety of important fields. Electronics had to be revolutionized with the development of better telecommunication and better computer technology, with a particular view towards the creation of micro-electronics. So, too, were there improvements in rocketry, in material engineering, and even in food safety. Finally, Apollo harbors broad responsibility for all the satellites which surround Earth today and are put to a wide variety of important uses. All in all, the push into space accelerated the advance of human prowess enormously and it is this which has changed the world.

There are also a lot of very valuable lessons the Apollo space program has for us and much that it can inspire us with. It showed how much human beings could achieve if they all put their minds to it and engaged in collective effort. The moon landing was achieved against all odds. The effort to accomplish it began little more than half a century since the horse and buggy vanished from the roads and when America’s spaceflight capabilities were in their infancy. On top of that, America during most of the space program was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, exerting much of its effort towards that end. It seemed unlikely that the nation could fulfill President Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and back before the end of the decade before anyone else.

Yet, in just eight years, that goal was achieved in its entirety. It was because despite all the disputes and squabbles that were going on, the people of America and several other countries which contributed were mostly united and they were determined to make the first moon landing possible. There have been few other projects in which so many were so eager to be involved. Think of how much else humanity could achieve if such an attitude was applied to everything. In the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo, let us continue to be motivated by this lesson. The endeavor to land the first man on the Moon should serve as an example to all of us.

Once the first moon landing was achieved, the number of people united behind it only skyrocketed. Michael Collins may not have landed on the Moon but he has a lot to tell us about it. He recalled that after coming back to Earth and taking a tour of the world, he was surprised to find the reaction he received from people was not along the lines of “Congratulations, your country did it” but instead, “We did it”. Across national borders, the moon landing was looked upon as an accomplishment for all people and this shows how much potential all of humanity has in being united for a common purpose.

The ventures into space in the second half of the twentieth century had a big impact on humanity’s collective consciousness in many ways. Through the sheer magnitude of the achievements of spacefaring, it made them think of the human race as being capable of anything and as having opened up a future of boundless possibilities. But heading out into space for the first time changed our thinking forever in another way, one that is the most unexpected result of the space programs.

It was supposed to be all about space. We had always been an earthbound species and now our endeavor was to change that and reach for what lay beyond Earth. Going to the Moon and elsewhere was our sole motivation. But in the process of doing so, our very own planet entered into the focus. Not only were we exploring outer space and uncovering what lay beyond, but we ended up rediscovering Earth as well.

By going into space for the first time, human beings were able to see the Earth from afar and hence as a whole. The first astronauts sent into orbit were the first to view Earth’s splendor as they set eyes on its blue surface shining brightly in the light of the Sun. Astronauts later sent farther into space were able to see Earth in its full, circular majesty. They were also to share that sight with all those back on Earth thanks to the cameras they brought onboard. The crew of Apollo 8, the first to orbit around the Moon in December 1968, took a photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon, half-covered, known as Earthrise. As the crew of Apollo 17 left for the moon for the last time, they took the first full picture of the Earth, given the name Blue Marble.

Seeing the Earth in full view caused a profound shift in our thinking. The impact the sight had on the astronauts themselves was huge and there was an impact also of the images on the world. Being able to see our world from this new perspective was of course interesting. It was also breathtaking. We have been able to gaze at the heavens since time immemorial, finding the sights in outer space to be majestic. But when we got ourselves into space, we found nothing, not the Moon or the Sun or anything else, to be as beautiful as our planet, a mixture of blue, white, and brown shining brightly in the sunlight. As Mike Collins recalled of the Apollo 11 voyage to the Moon, “The first time we saw the Moon up close, it was a magnificent spectacle. It was huge. The Sun was coming around it, cascading and making a golden halo, and filled our entire window. As impressive as the view was of this alien Moon seen up close, it was nothing compared to the sight of the tiny Earth. The Earth was the main show. The Earth was it.”

In the end, it seems that the Earth itself, as a planet on its own out there in space, became the focal point of our explorations of space. Furthermore, the biggest result of looking at Earth from a far was that it forever changed how people look at the world they live in.

Before, as we lived on the Earth, it always seemed endless, like a universe in itself. But with the advent of space exploration, by seeing it against the background of space, we were able to see how limited our world is. It was a small oasis, providing us with everything we need for our existence, in the endless desert of space. As a result, we began to appreciate the world more and be more conscious of its fragility. We began to think of the entire world as being one. Now, more than ever, we wanted to take care of it.

The Earth photos made plainer the destruction and futility of war, already evident to us for some time now. Pacifist attitudes were encouraged. So too was humanitarianism across borders. People had a greater desire to help other people wherever they were in the world and international charities took the images as potent symbols. And people also had instilled in them the desire to take care of the Earth itself. Earthrise and Blue Marble provided kinder for the newly-born environmental movement. People had just started to notice how we were wreaking havoc on natural environments everywhere and seeing the Earth as a whole drove home the point that what we were destroying was everything that we had. Inspired in part by the release of Earthrise, the first Earth Day was inaugurated little more than a year later.

What no doubt contributed to this awareness was how exploring outer space was by itself a quest that yielded little actual benefit for humanity. Our desire to go into space is fueled in part by how marvelous it is to us. The cosmos is of a grand scale and the wonders that exist in it are endless and awe-inspiring. At the same time, it is completely inhospitable to us human beings. This was a point made in the Apollo 11 mission itself. As is well known, Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon were, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. When it was Buzz Aldrin’s turn to take his first step, his first words upon seeing the landscape around him was “Magnificent desolation”.

Armstrong’s first words are what all of us take to heart. But Aldrin’s first words also carry an important meaning for us, a meaning that in fact may be actually of more significance to humanity, if only we choose to realize it. The Moon was a magnificent place to reach but it was also desolate, completely lifeless and completely still. The same went for the rest of outer space, made up of vast, empty voids dotted with sparse objects that, as far as we can see, are either desolate or hellish (also hard to reach). The cosmos around Earth has little to provide us with. Only the Earth has everything. Outer space is incredibly vast, endless in fact, but also barren, while Earth is bountiful, filled with all we need, but is also very, very minute.

So outer space has always captivated us and our desire to reach for the stars has been strong. But in doing so, our attention was quickly drawn to our home planet. We would never take it for granted again and the situation it is in became clearer. The same explosive growth of civilization which has enabled mankind to extend its reach into outer space so quickly also has rendered the Earth vulnerable to our actions. The importance of taking care of the world was driven home to us and that is perhaps the biggest gift the pioneering space programs of the twentieth century have given us.

So by all means, we should continue to travel into space. We should continue to imagine and to push forward towards the countless possibilities for us that lie out there. And we should at the same time do all we can to maintain the well-being of the planet from which we take off. We need to be responsible in how we live on it and we need to take care of it using the same ingenuity, prowess, willpower, and teamwork that Apollo proved that humanity is capable of.

Our home planet must also be kept in our gaze and our fascination. In fact, it should be our main interest. Outer space is magnificent in terms of its sheer scale. Grand spectacles are offered up by its endless expanse. The Earth is equally magnificent in its intricacy. Packed into the small space that is our planet is an endless variety of wonders. There is enormous complexity and diversity in everything that is on it and that makes up our world and much of what is on it is amazing in form. Our world is also not fully revealed to us and we continue to explore it.

Just the fact that most of the ocean floor is uncharted while the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, and Venus are almost fully mapped is testament to this. Earth is a world of spectacles just as the cosmos is and is one that is for our survival and our prosperity. So we should continue to keep one, far-reaching eye towards the cosmos and all its planets, stars, nebulas, and galaxies and another, more intimate eye, on the Earth and its oceans, atmosphere, terrain, landscapes, and, most of all, incredible diversity of life.

Life is what makes Earth unique in the universe that we know and it is the most wondrous part of our planet. Not only is the variety of life almost unlimited but so is the complexity of all living things. Nowhere in the entire universe are there more marvels to explore than in life on Earth. Yet, it is also among what is most threatened on our Earth. Due to human activity, the health of wild ecosystems is being destroyed and countless species are being driven to extinction. When a species goes extinct, it is gone permanently. That should be the most painful reality that looking at Earth makes us realize. As Earth is all that we have in the cold abyss of the universe, every time a species on it goes extinct, it reduces what is there with us forever. It is a loss for the way the world is supposed to be and also a loss for humanity, directly, as any species is more likely than not to be of use. Imagine what the world would be like now if chickens and cattle became extinct before they could be domesticated. All of us tend not to give the recognition to the enormity of this reality that we need to, but looking at our vibrant blue planet standing in contrast to the blackness of space will give us that awareness.

There is so much meaning to be found in Apollo 11, the first voyage to the Moon, as we commemorate the passing of half a century since. Today is the anniversary of the final day of the voyage, when the first men on the Moon finally return to Earth, their home world, after 9 days in space on history’s greatest voyage. After all the jubilation of their historic trip to the Moon, in the end, that may have been the part of the voyage that meant the most to them. To be back home on their planet full of life and full of the hospitability humanity has always known, after so long in the magnificent desolation of space, to once again feel something as mundane as the Earth’s gravity which holds everything together, is enough to make them appreciate the Earth’s worth more than anything else. While only very few can be able to share that experience, all of us should learn what it can teach us.

Our fifty-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission ends here. We spent it not only looking back at the past and at the groundbreaking achievements of people back then but also looking forward towards the future. It is the future of space travel, of course, guided by Apollo’s legacy. As human civilization continues to march forward and as we make progress in human capability at accelerating speeds, we will be able to push farther and farther out into space and how far we will go and where we will ultimately end up, no one knows. But at the same time, as human civilization grows with no end in sight, the weight it places on planet Earth grows and the difficult realities it creates continue onwards. How that will ultimately end up, also no one knows. We have to keep this in mind as we look towards the future of space travel and we need progress in our attitudes towards each other and towards the world.

Let Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrin, Michael Collins, and the 400,000 other people who worked on Apollo 11 serve as the source of inspiration to us in this regard as we honor them for their heroic achievement. Our remembrance does not end here and likely never will, for they will serve as an inspiration to the world always. But we serve them no justice unless we ensure that there will forever be a world in which their legacy lives on, a world that future space travellers can always continue to look back and know there is a home to return to. There is going to be a lot we will have to do, but just as humanity in the 1960s determined to reach the Moon and succeeded, so too can humanity now unite and determine to protect and preserve the Earth for all future generations and so too can we succeed. In the end, perhaps the simplest lesson that can guide us is that, beneath the wondrous realm of space, our blue planet Earth is far from endless, but the diversity of everything on it is endless.

And all of that, we need to protect and cherish forever.