It appears man’s footprints will grace the lunar surface once more within the next five years—more than five decades after the first landing. What is motivating us to return?
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Idealism can seem to border on lunacy—particularly when one does not have the means to accomplish a goal.
One could have thought this when U.S. President John F. Kennedy made a commitment on May 25, 1961, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth “before this decade is out.”
At the time those words were uttered, this goal sounded virtually impossible. “We didn’t have the tools or equipment—the rockets or the launchpads, the spacesuits or the computers or the micro-gravity food,” Smithsonian reported. “And it isn’t just that we didn’t have what we would need; we didn’t even know what we would need. We didn’t have a list; no one in the world had a list. Indeed, our unpreparedness for the task goes a level deeper: We didn’t even know how to fly to the Moon. We didn’t know what course to fly to get there from here. And…we didn’t know what we would find when we got there. Physicians worried that people wouldn’t be able to think in micro-gravity conditions. Mathematicians worried that we wouldn’t be able to calculate how to rendezvous two spacecraft in orbit—to bring them together in space and dock them in flight both perfectly and safely.”
Thousands of concerns were laid on the table: A Cornell astrophysicist warned that lunar dust that had been isolated from oxygen could combust when brought back into a lunar module’s cabin. He also speculated that a spacecraft might sink into the moon’s soil and bury its occupants alive.
NASA itself, only three years old, had no portable computers that could guide a spaceship. No way of talking to the astronauts as they were on the way. None of the metal alloys that would be used on the spacecraft were yet invented.
The president and his staff understood what the space program was up against. After making the proposition, Kennedy stated: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
It was estimated that the costs for the Apollo program would reach $40 billion—equivalent to $331.31 billion in 2018. Even the International Space Station—the most expensive single item ever constructed—did not cost half this figure over its 20-year lifespan.
But it was not a lunatic idea. By the early 60s, Americans were itching to beat the USSR in some way. The Soviets were the first to launch a satellite into space with Sputnik in 1957 and in April 1961 put the first human being in space.
Through the next eight years, NASA had to solve thousands of problems to get human beings to the moon safely. “Every one of those challenges was tackled and mastered between May 1961 and July 1969,” Smithsonian continued.
Not all went smoothly. The first crewed mission of the Apollo program ended in disaster in 1967 when all three of its crew members were killed in a fire during a launch rehearsal test. And the Apollo 10 crew—who conducted the “dress rehearsal” months before the Apollo 11 moon landing—were seconds from blacking out and crashing on lunar soil after the spacecraft began spiraling out of control.
Yet the blood, sweat and tears expended by hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers and factory workers fulfilled Kennedy’s prerogative. In that way, when Neil Armstrong made the small step to put the first human footprint on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission, it truly represented a giant leap for mankind.
It began decades of technological progress and unquestioned U.S. leadership in exploration and military prowess. In eight years, teams of scientists, engineers and test pilots managed to develop the technologies and processes needed to get a man to the moon and back.
All this was amazingly done before the decade was out.
This time fascinated young minds into the decades that became known as the Space Age—complete with the space movie epic Star Wars and TV series Star Trek.
But what was accomplished in eight years reveals a fundamental drive for mankind to explore—and an incredible reason for it.
Fifty years ago this summer was a moment millions of now grown up Baby Boomers say defined their childhood: when they watched NASA’s Apollo 11 make the first manned lunar landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon together. Michael Collins zipping along in orbit in the command module.
But little did viewers back on terra firma understand the complexity of the mission. The descent was a near-miss. Armstrong flew the Eagle—the name given to the module that would land on the moon—manually to avoid a rocky area. They found a landing spot with only two seconds of fuel to spare before a mandatory abort.
When the Eagle touched ground, Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to sleep for five hours before opening the hatch. But the two—one a hardened X-15 test pilot and the other an Air Force veteran—went ahead with preparations. Armstrong’s heart rate exceeded 160 beats per minute at this time.
Next, Armstrong squeezed through the opening just large enough for his suited frame. He pulled a ring that activated the TV camera, and some 600 million people—one-fifth of the world population at the time—began watching the ghostly black-and-white images on live television. It was the public’s first moving-picture view of the surface of the moon. People came to a standstill as they watched, from Marines fighting in the jungles of Vietnam to children at Disneyland.
A plaque left on the ladder of Eagle states: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It was signed by President Richard Nixon and the three astronauts.
Armstrong described the surface as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder.” When he made the epic step, it became, as he described, “one giant leap for mankind.”
Soon after, Aldrin joined his partner, and described what he saw as “magnificent desolation.” The lunar pioneers then spent the next 2.5 hours picking up soil samples, taking photos, testing different methods of walking on the slippery surface and in one-sixth of Earth’s gravity.
In the period from 1969 to 1972, 12 men were put on the moon through six Apollo missions. The last time human footprints graced the lunar surface was during the Apollo 17 mission.
By the last Apollo mission, public interest in space exploration had been steadily declining. At that point, it was clear the U.S. had space superiority. Cold War tensions began easing—evidenced by joint space projects with the Soviets such as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which involved the docking together of the two superpowers’ spacecraft in 1975. In addition, domestic issues were on the rise in the homeland. With inflation rising, the government was under pressure to reduce spending.
In 1973, 59 percent of those polled by Gallup said they favored cutting funding for space exploration.
“The Apollo project was a political project,” Sergei Khrushchev, the son of late Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, explained in an interview with Scientific American. In other words, the moon landing made a bold statement, but there are many other important areas of space exploration.
And NASA’s programs have indeed flourished since, with the International Space Station, Mars rovers, the Hubble Space Telescope and automated exploration of the outer regions of the solar system such as New Horizons visiting Pluto in July 2015.
Yet the notion of putting human beings on another planetary body was never really extinguished.
There is a new race to get to the moon. It has a lower profile than the one in the 60s. It involves private companies, new countries and a NASA return mission to place astronauts back on the lunar surface by 2024.
While a $30 million prize for private companies to send robotic probes to the moon went unclaimed last year, one of the competitors, from an Israeli private nonprofit, crashed last month as it tried to land.
China has landed a rover on the moon’s far side, and plans to send men to the unchartered “dark side.” SpaceX last year announced plans to send a Japanese businessman around the moon in 2023. And the Israeli nonprofit said it will give it a second shot.
Even Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos said he is going to send a spaceship to the moon, joining a resurgence of lunar interest half a century after people first set foot there.
He said his space company Blue Origin will land a robotic ship the size of a small house, capable of carrying four rovers and using a newly designed rocket engine and souped-up rockets. It would be followed by a version that could bring people to the moon along the same timeframe as NASA’s proposed 2024 return.
Mr. Bezos said, “This is an incredible vehicle and it’s going to the moon.” He added: “It’s time to go back to the moon. This time to stay.”
For its part as the only organization to have sent men to the moon, NASA’s chief said May 21 that the Trump administration’s proposed $1.6 billion budget boost is a “good start” for getting astronauts back up there within five years.
During an hourlong town hall meeting from NASA headquarters in Washington, administrator Jim Bridenstine said $1.6 billion is enough for 2020. But more money will be needed in the years ahead to land “the next man and the first woman” at the south pole of the moon by 2024.
The new program will be called Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
For the next go-around, the space agency wants its moonwalkers to reflect today’s more diverse astronaut corps, thus the name of Apollo’s sister. Artemis was goddess of the hunt as well as the moon.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence urged NASA to accelerate its moon-landing program, moving it up from 2028 to 2024.
NASA has flip-flopped between the moon and Mars, a victim of changing presidential administrations. More recently, President Barack Obama targeted Mars as astronauts’ next big destination, while President Donald Trump has favored the moon.
The desire to put man back on Earth’s nearest neighbor may seem pure nostalgia. But there is a fascinating point to man’s inherent need to explore.
Think of all the reasons man is driven to explore outer space.
For one, it pushes us to progress in ways we now mostly take for granted.
In 60 years we went from being bound to the Earth to visiting every planet in the solar system. With satellite coverage, we are never alone on the planet—we can talk on cellular phones and drive with GPS. Technologies for industry, transportation and medicine, as well as our understanding of human health, have advanced because of space travel. Also, the photographic and video images of places never seen before have aroused imaginations and inspired generations to continue the quest of understanding humanity’s place in the universe.
But, ultimately, space exploration missions answer fundamental but profound questions mankind has asked for millennia. Questions NASA listed: “What is the nature of the Universe? Is the destiny of humankind bound to Earth? Are we and our planet unique? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe?”
These same questions have motivated humans to devote their lives to searching the great unknowns: Cortez and Columbus claiming land in the “New World,” crews racing to be the first to reach the South Pole in Antarctica, Theodore Roosevelt charting the River of Doubt in the Amazon, and the ongoing effort to reach greater depths in the oceans trenches.
Human beings have an insatiable need to find anything and everything that is beyond their line of sight. David Scott, an astronaut who set foot on the moon during the first rover mission in Apollo 15, summarized this: “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.”
There is one source that can explain our passion to understand the unknown: the Being who created everything.
Note: “Thus says God the Lord, He that created the heavens, and stretched them out…” (Isa. 42:5). “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even My hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded” (45:12). “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in” (40:22).
The heavens glisten with fingerprints of a Creator. It is no wonder Buzz Aldrin quoted on the last night of his mission before splashdown: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained: What is man, that You are mindful of him?” (Psa. 8:3-4).
Mr. Aldrin was quoting a man who lived 3,000 years ago—David who slayed Goliath and was king of ancient Israel.
Both Aldrin and King David, as well as anyone who has seen the vastness of the universe, realized how tiny and insignificant they were.
The same Being who created the stars also made human beings, and designed us to feel this way. Notice: “He has set the world [eternity] in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God makes from the beginning to the end” (Ecc. 3:11).
God is eternal—He is infinite! But because human beings are finite, “a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” (8:17).
The desire to understand all of God’s Creation and our place in it was put in our hearts, so we yearn and search. Space exploration programs are a modern fulfillment of this. But God promised that we would not be able to figure out eternity. Therefore, we continue to wonder and explore.
This can sound defeating—until you realize the real, mind-boggling purpose for every human being who has ever lived.
Again, the answer is contained within God’s Word. Read what comes after the verses Mr. Aldrin quoted from Psalms: “You made [man] to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet” (8:6).
What is being explained has enormous implications: Man was made to have control over everything God made—which is everything!
Your incredible potential exceeds what even thousands of scientists could accomplish by getting man to Earth’s nearest neighbor—as far as the galaxies and the edges of the Universe are from Earth.
Read The Awesome Potential of Man to grasp the crucial purpose for your life.