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7.20.19 - Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

July 20th, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. While this milestone attests to the incredible achievements of the Apollo missions to the moon, it also engenders equally heavy thoughts about when and how we will return to finish the incredible journey we started so many years ago.

"Tranquility Base, this is Earth. We're coming back soon."

I can't remember a time when I didn't look up at the moon in awe. To this day, I find myself gazing at the moon, trying desperately to comprehend that this small, dappled sphere traversing the sky isn't just a glowing beacon trapped in some tangible firmament, but rather an entire celestial body traveling 2,288 mph around the Earth at a distance of approximately 238,855 miles.

50 years ago today, the United States succeeded in making the greatest leap in human history as the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon and momentarily inhabited a celestial body. It is only through the incredible ingenuity and hard work of the many people involved with the US Space Program that mankind reached this historic milestone.

Humanity has studied the terrain, phases, libration, and orbit of the moon for centuries, but it wasn't until someone stood on the surface of the moon and gazed back at Earth that it became undeniably clear that we are an infinitesimally small oasis in a great and seemingly endless universe. The perils of interplanetary travel have became more and more evident, and it is clear that the next giant leap will take even more effort than the first.

9 Apollo missions flew to the moon, and 9 returned safely to Earth (though Apollo 13 nearly didn't). Six Apollo missions landed astronauts on the moon for progressively longer stays and more rigorous scientific studies. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first to walk on the moon in 1969, and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last in 1972. In total, only 12 people have traversed the surface of the moon.

The Apollo missions to the moon ended on December 14th, 1972 as Gene Cernan stepped up off the lunar surface and the crew of Apollo 17 returned to Earth. The great tragedy that very nearly eclipses the great achievements of the Apollo era, is that after 3 short years of exploring the moon’s surface, we abandoned the moon for what is now an astonishing 47 years. This is not to say that these years apart from the moon haven’t been instrumental in expanding mankind’s understanding of space flight. In this time NASA has explored the complexities of long-term habitation in space with the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. The knowledge gained over nearly half a century will be pivotal to future missions to the moon and beyond.

As we continue towards the 50th anniversary of our absence from the moon in 2022, NASA is preparing to break that streak with yet another historic mission. With the successful test flight of the Ascent Abort System (AA2) earlier this month, NASA is poised to return to the moon (and even reach beyond it) with SLS/Orion and the Artemis program by 2024. I can’t wait for the great discoveries that lie in waiting upon the lunar surface.

I took the image above of the waning moon on the night of 7.19.2019. It's my own small record of where the moon was 50 years after we first stepped foot on its surface. While waxing and waning moons are not as bright as full moons, the shadows always bring out more detail to the incredible depth of the lunar terrain. From what I see from Apollo era maps of the moon, not much has changed over the past 50 years. Hopefully, I won’t be able to say that 50 years from now.

© 2019 Shaun C Tarpley


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