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Remembering 'One Small Step' 45 Years Later

  On July 20, 1969, man became an interstellar voyager when Apollo 11 made the first of a half-dozen visits on the moon. 

It was 45 years ago when the world heard astronaut Neil Armstrong’s “One giant step for mankind” remark as he stepped down onto the lunar surface. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first of a dozen Americans to walk on the moon and return home safely. A third astronaut, Michael Collins, piloted the Apollo 11 command spacecraft in lunar orbit.

The landing of “The Eagle” -- the Lunar Exploration Module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s surface – was the culmination of NASA’s response to the gauntlet thrown down by President John F. Kennedy, in an address to Congress in May, 1961.

“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,” said Kennedy. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

Budget cuts forced cancelation of the Apollo 17 and 18 missions in 1972. NASA then shifted its attention to development of the space shuttle and International Space Station programs. As for man’s next journey to the moon, Wayne Wooten, an astronomer at Pensacola State College, said it may not be that far off – for another nation.

“America, not soon. China, in the next decade. India, perhaps a close race with China,” said Wooten. “Those space programs definitely have the funding and the national initiative to put Chinese or Indian astronauts on the moon within a decade.”

And, as was the case in the early 1970s, the focus on U.S. space exploration is undergoing another transformation. Manned missions in the near future likely will go not to the moon, but to near-Earth asteroids that contain various minerals, and perhaps the water needed for colonization.

“They’re passing close enough to Earth, that it would actually be easier to land and come back from them, that it would be to go to the moon and back again because the logistics are going to be considerably easier,” said Wooten.

Easier, because the return trip from a zero-gravity asteroid will not require the same giant landing craft that was needed for the Apollo astronauts to defeat the moon’s gravity, even though it’s one-sixth that of Earth.

While NASA is moving away from another trip to the Moon, Pensacola State C0llege’s Wayne Wooten says it’s likely to become an eventual destination for privately-funded spacecraft that are now under development, such as those by the firms Virgin Galactic and Golden Spike.

There are at least two pending U-S moon missions – the International Lunar Network has a tentative 2018 launch date, and a manned test of the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit is expected between 2019 and 2021.

Besides the U-S, China and India, other nations with lunar missions on the drawing board include Japan, Russia, South Korea, Iran, and the European Union. So in the next few years, it may get a little crowded up there.