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One small step ... one lasting memory

July 17, 2009 - Art Smith

Mankind changed forever 40 years ago Monday when the first human sat foot on a celestial body other than earth.

The landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was a unifying event of the late 1960s. More people likely gathered around more televisions, around the planet, to watch a single event than ever before.

I almost missed it.

Forty years ago I was an eight-year-old living in Florida. My family and I lived around 100 miles north of Cape Kennedy. Space travel was and still is something Floridians take pride in. That particular July though, we were far from the ocean. We were camping in North Carolina.

Apparently I was a bit of a tech geek even at eight. I pleaded with my dad to find a way we could watch the landing. We checked into a hotel in Ashville for one night for the sole purpose of watching on television the landing. The TV was small and black and white, which was OK because the broadcast was blurry and in black and white as well.

I, my family and rest of the world witnessed history that night on television. I was privileged to witness some of the other launches in person.

Living in Gainesville we could at times witness the launch of the giant Saturn V rockets firsthand.

I remember watching one of the Apollo launches on our TV and then going onto our front yard to watch it pass high overhead. I distinctly remember watching as the sun glisten off the rocket as one stage separated from another.

On another warm summer day we were at the beach with throngs of other Floridians. The crowd listened to the countdown on car radios, and then as it reached “liftoff” paused while the rocket rose from the launch pad several dozen miles south of the beach.

The best view of a launch I had would come during a school field trip.  It was the final of three missions to Skylab, the post Apollo and pre-shuttle era space station.  I got up at 5 a.m. and boarded one of five buses at Howard Bishop Middle School. A few hours later we were in position around three miles from the launch pad, an area banned to the public after the Challenger explosion.

Watching a launch in person is truly a remarkable event.  First you see the fire, a controlled explosion designed to literally blast people into outer space. Next you feel it, the ground shakes like an earthquake. Then the heat wave hits you, jumping the temperature from warm and humid, to hot and dry instantly.

It would be the last launch by the United States with a conventional rocket, and the last launch I would witness. The following year I moved to Marietta and several years later NASA would begin flying the shuttle.

The shuttle is the only manned spacecraft any American under 40 likely remembers. The craft is only able to carry men and machines to low earth orbit, where we have been stuck for a generation. Two crews have been lost when the crafts were torn part by the forces of liftoff and landing.

The nation is about to retire the aging fleet and phase in vehicles that NASA believes will once again carry Americans to the moon and beyond. The last time, the crews that stepped foot on the moon were all white, all male and mostly test pilots.  The next round of astronauts are sure to draw on a more varied background as they prepare for and reflect on what once again will be a historic journey.

John Kennedy laid out his plan to visit the moon by the “end of this decade” when he proposed the goal in the early 1960s.  “ We will do this not because it is easy,” he said, “but because it is hard.”

The journey back to the moon will be hard too, and just as was the case in the 1960s, we will be a better nation for it.


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