Forty year ago, on July 20, in 1969, Neil Armstrong, Commander of Apollo 11 Mission and Edwin Aldrin Jr., Commander of its lunar module ‘ Eagle’ became the first cosmonauts to land on the moon. As Armstrong set his foot on the celestial body he said, “ One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was indeed an astonishing feat! If one were to cover the distance of nearly 4 lakh kilometers between Moon and Earth by car it would take him 130 days to reach the lunar surface. The Apollo Mission journey was covered in a little over three days from 16th to 20th July that year. While Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, Michael Collins continued to orbit Earth in his command module. After spending 21 hours exploring the moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin returned to Earth. Millions of people across the world watched the video broadcast of the Moon landing.
To re-live that historic moment, the governments and space organizations across the world have organized several programs. In the United Kingdom, Royal Mail is issuing a commemorative sheet of 10 stamps in an illustrated folder. Such is the public enthusiasm over man conquering Moon that the stamps sheet is now selling at a premium over its face value of £13.50. In the United States, National Air and Space Museum has been holding an exhibition “Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World” since 16th July, the day on which the Apollo mission was launched. On display are 40 original paintings and drawings by artist- astronaut, Alan Bean who traveled to Moon in Apollo 12 Mission.. The show enables the viewers to experience a world so far away through the eyes of the only artist to walk on the lunar surface. A documentary “Alan Bean: Artist Astronaut” by Jeffrey Roth is also being screened there since yesterday The film explores why Bean left NASA to make his Apollo-inspired artwork, using footage shot inside his workshop and photos of the Apollo-era tools he used to add texture to his paintings. Mathew Battles, a reputed author credited with several works has written a fascinating book “13 ways to Look at Apollo”. Battles book begins by talking about the constructions of the Apollo spacecraft and its relationship to other amazing vessels that took people to adventures during classical antiquity. He says, “The spacecraft, both a high- tech marvel and a low- tech tin can, was in some sense the unsung hero of the Moon Landing. But, the astronauts became the true heroes.” Incidentally, 2009 has also been named as the International Year of Astronomy.
The Moon landing was an event over which the old feel nostalgic while the young feel that they missed the bus. Yet, not everyone is so euphoric about it. In the United States itself, there are many who believe that the first Moon landing was a hoax. Bill Kaysing, a former engineer who worked on the design of Apollo rockets said, “The whole thing seemed phoney to me.” He was particularly puzzled by the landing vehicle, which did not seem to make any engine noise. Astronaut Brian OLeary who was an adviser to the Apollo program in the 1960s also said: “I can’t be sure 100 per cent that man actually walked on the Moon.” To the hoax believers question why no star was visible in the background of the visuals of the Moon landing, NASA’s reply was that because the sun was so bright and the lunar surface so reflective, the stars would be too dim for a camera to capture. For other such questions, NASA scientists would sigh wearily, like teachers trying to educate the dullest kid in class in the simplest physics. American media also carries the story that ever since President John F Kennedy pledged at the start of the 1960s that man would travel to Moon and be back within a decade, the US administration had been desperately trying to beat the Russians in the space race. That summer of 1969, Moscow was only a month from launching its own manned Moon shot. But, Washington which was already burdened with the Vietnam war decided to take public attention away from its problems by this popular distraction. The hoax believers say , the astronauts in suits put down their foot in a top-secret military installation in the Nevada desert, also known as Groom Lake or Dreamland. It was the ideal place to house an area of make-believe Moon.
While the debate over the first Moon landing goes on, space science has traveled afar from the era of 1969 when only the US and USSR were the space faring nations. Today, the US and Russia are preparing to set up permanent bases on the Moon by 2020. Since the cold war has become a thing of the past, like the International Space station project in which many countries cooperated, the permanent lunar base could also be an international project. And if that happens, India with its knowledge of moon may join that project. Former ISRO Chairman, Prof. U R Rao says, Moon may or may not be colonized but it will surely be the stepping stone for colonizing Mars. In fact, compared to Moon, Mars has a greater prospect of being colonized because Mars has a thin atmosphere whereas Moon has none. To secure international cooperation in its lunar mission projects, the ISRO has already entered into an agreement with its Russian counterpart in November 2007. It is planning to send a manned mission to Moon by 2030. Much before that in 2012, the ISRO will, however, be sending a lunar rover during its Chandrayaan -2 mission. By launching Chandrayaan 1 mission last year, India made known its grandiose space ambition. The Indian made orbiter is still going round the Moon, keeping a watch on it from a distance of 100 km only. The Indian national tri-colour landed by the lunar probe during that mission still beacons our astronauts to make it to the Moon as early as possible.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INVC