Sky's Up - Fall 2015 - Page 30

on the road with David Levy July 16, 1969: A defining moment D By DAVID H. LEVY Sky’s Up Editor in Chief uring the summer of 1968 I began working as an astronomy instructor at Camp Minnowbrook — a music, arts and science camp on the north shore of Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Lothar Eppstein and his wife, Paula, directed the camp. They ran it rather strictly, but during the three years I worked for them I grew to love them both. On the morning of July 16, 1969, I was working my second year as an astronomy counselor. On that day the entire camp gathered in the third floor auditorium to watch the liftoff of Apollo 11, which carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. This mission was the first American attempt to land on the Moon. The launch took place like clockwork. On that day, As the countdown reached T minus seven five huge rocket engines lit up. These how many of us seconds, engines were so enormous that one could set wondered what up housekeeping inside each of them. After seconds, all of the engines were firing would happen next? aatfew full thrust. Then slowly, the mighty Saturn Would humanity inched upwards from its launch pad and tower, up speed as it roared into the sky. go to Mars? Romp picking Four days later, the camp gathered again to across an asteroid, watch the tricky landing on the Moon. We not know at the time how close to being or explore a comet? did canceled that landing came. With just thirty On that night there seconds of fuel left, Neil appeared to be still the process of selecting his landing site. But seemed nothing in he was cool as a cucumber; he had found a site our species could and was gently completing his landing there. up some dust... Engine stop...” not do if we set our “Picking And then... “Tranquility base here. The Eagle has minds to it. landed.” It is hard to recall the emotions that went through my mind at that moment; even harder to appreciate that when it shut down, the Eagle had just a few seconds of fuel left in its descent stage. Two hours later I had a conversation with the head counselor, who had planned a typical program of evening activities. I suggested that we watch the first step on the lunar surface that evening, but the head counselor brusquely turned me aside, telling me to mind my own business and do my job without questioning anything. I returned to my table feeling rather put-off by the turn-down. But either the head counselor went to Lothar with that suggestion, or more likely the director himself overheard our conversation. A few minutes later Lothar made his announcement regarding the single most important world event in our 30 lifetimes. “Evening program canceled,” he said. “Instead, and there is no question about this, we’ll all meet in the auditorium and watch these first steps on the Moon. History will be made tonight.” We gathered in the auditorium — 150 people faced a small black-and-white TV set sitting on a chair on the stage. The hours before the egress passed quickly; even though the time was getting close to 11 pm, no one wanted to leave. Suddenly there appeared on the screen a picture of the lunar module with Neil Armstrong on its porch. There were 150 faces in our audience, each one frozen toward the tiny screen. “I am at the top of the ladder,” Armstrong said. Despite the numbers of people there, I had no trouble hearing every word, for the children were now breathlessly silent. Step by step the astronaut descended. “I am at the foot of the ladder,” Neil Armstrong uttered. Then, as we held our breaths, he went down the final step to the Moon, placing one, then both feet on its surface and into history. As we now know the full majesty of the words he said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I could not hold back tears as I beheld that moment. Eight years after President Kennedy gave us the Moon as a target and a challenge for the nation, and a mere eleven years after NASA was born, a human was there. On that night, as onesixth of the world’s population watched, humanity made its initial steps onto a new world and into a new era. On that day, how many of us wondered what would happen next? Would humanity go to Mars? Romp across an asteroid, or explore a comet? On that night there seemed nothing our species could not do if we set our minds to it. I imagine that most of us would provide a disappointing reply to this question. But it isn’t all negative; for example, few envisaged that just a few years later, the intrepid Voyager spacecraft would sail past Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan. Its sister craft, Voyager 2, would then accomplish the long hoped for Grand Tour of the outer planets, visiting the four giant worlds Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And who would have imagined the great Pluto story? Early in 2006, New Horizons, perched atop an Atlas 5, soared aloft from the Kennedy Space Center all the way to Pluto. Just a few months after this marvelous launch, the International Astronomical Union would reclassify Pluto into something other than what I think really is. We all probably could foretell that human explorers would build a Space Station housing astronauts and cosmonauts from lands all around the world. Actually, many, many accomplishments have occurred, just not the ones we hoped for on that magical late evening of July 20, 1969. Sky’s Up