Forty-five years ago today, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Lunar Excursion Module Eagle on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility.
Their crew mate Mike Collins flew overhead in the Command Module Columbia monitoring the historic event via radio transmissions.
The descent to the lunar surface had been a harrowing one with the fuel remaining in Eagle getting down to 60 and then 30 seconds while Neil avoided craters and boulders to find a safe landing area.
A series of alarms triggered by an overloaded computer aboard Eagle added to the tension inside Mission Control.
I, and hundreds of millions of other Earthlings, held our collective breath.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” was the message Neil sent to the world to let us know history had been made. Controllers in Houston and people around the world let out a huge sigh of relief and erupted in celebration.
I watched legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite break out out into a wide grin, take off his glasses, clasp his hands together and say what sounded like “oh boy.”
The only other time I had seen any emotion from the stoic and always professional on-air anchor of CBS Evening News was when he announced the death of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. But that had been just a clearing of his throat and an adjustment of his glasses.
President Kennedy’s goal of safely landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960’s had been met. Returning him safely to Earth was a few days away.
The world rejoiced the American accomplishment. An age-old dream was achieved and witnessed live by a significant portion of the human race. To an America suffering through the bloody and violent ’60’s, the missions of Apollo 8, the first humans to leave Earth orbit and orbit the Moon, and Apollo 11, were welcome and needed respite.
Six more missions to the moon would be launched with 10 more men joining that very exclusive club: “Moonwalker.” Eugene Cernan, commander of next giant leap” to Mars by building the spacecraft and rockets that will take Americans to the Red Planet. NASA also intends to fly to the moon and asteroids.
It’s been more than 34 years since NASA built and launched a manned spacecraft — the Space Shuttle being the last.
It’s been three years since a U.S.-manned mission left the pad in a U.S. spacecraft. The U.S. has been gaining access to the International Space Station by paying Russia — yes, that Russia — over $70 million per seat on the Soyuz spacecraft.
It is an understatement to say that U.S. relations with Russia have been strained since Ukraine erupted. We’ll have to see how relations develop as a result of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. ISS cooperation between the two countries has continued in spite of these political tensions.
Orion’s first flight will be unmanned. The spacecraft will be loaded with sensors, a new flight computer, the world’s largest heat shield ever built and mated to the European Space Agency built Service Module.
EFT-1 will take Orion to a distance of 3,671 miles from Earth and purposely fly through the Van Allen Radiation Belt that circles our planet in order to expose the spacecraft to this radiation.
Because Orion has a mission length of 21 to 210 days and will fly on deep space missions beyond Earth’s magnetic field, the spacecraft must provide shielding for the astronauts.
Orion will fly two orbits and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour. Temperatures on the heat shield will reach 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Three main parachutes must deploy for Orion to safely splashdown in the Pacific for recovery by the U.S. Navy.
EFT-1 will give NASA the data and flight experience needed to make any modifications to Orion.
SLS will come in two versions just as NASA’s Saturn rocket that launched the Apollo missions did. Both versions will be larger and more powerful than the mighty Saturn V; the 130-ton SLS will be able to lift 286,000 pounds of payload to LEO.
Engines and solid rocket boosters from the Space Shuttle era will power the core stage of SLS while an improved Saturn V upper stage engine, the J2X, will power the upper SLS stage.
Astronauts will ride the first Orion-SLS mission in 2021. Once again, the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center will run down to zero just as it did for Apollo 11.
There will be fire on the pad. Americans in an American-built spaceship and rocket will once again head into deep space and start America on its journey towards the “next giant leap.”