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Jul 07

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – July, 2019

A Golden Anniversary

It’s rather incredible to me that it has been fifty years since I saw that static-filled image of a man in what looked like a white deep sea diving suit hopping off a short ladder to step onto the surface on the Moon. July 20, 1969, was a Sunday and NASA wisely scheduled the first lunar “excursion” during prime time. It was also no accident that the engineers had mounted a television camera on a drop-down platform on one of the legs of the lander. Viewers first saw a blank screen with a message like “no signal detected” and then all of a sudden we were looking at a stark image of black sky, bright grey landscape, and a short ladder down one of the lander’s legs. A short time later we watched as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder and stepped off of it and onto the lunar surface.

It had been about six hours between the time Armstrong said “Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed” and, “That’s one small step for man . . .” so we were all able to plan our evening and set aside the time to watch him emerge from the spacecraft and take the historic “step off the LEM”.

Be aware that this was the most highly anticipated and universally witnessed event in history. During a decade when tumultuous events (war, civil rights protests) threatened the fabric of our society, the space program was something we could all get excited about. Besides, it was a race with the Russians and we all wanted to win it.

There were many sources of information on how to record both sound and images of Armstrong’s first step. Of course, black and white broadcast television was the only source of the images so I had my 35 mm camera with black and white film mounted on a tripod in front of the television set. I also recorded the audio on a portable cassette recorder. And although anyone can now watch video and listen to recordings of the mission with a few mouse clicks, those original, personal recordings of the event are still rather special.

And then there’s the “. . . one small step . . .” line which was also highly anticipated. We are all familiar with the first words spoken from the Moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, but some think Armstrong actually blew his line. He had planned to say, “That’s one small step for a man . . .” because “for man” and “for mankind” seemed redundant. At the time I even had a poster with the quote on it, including the “. . . small step for a man” quote in question. There was discussion about it for a short time but it is now viewed to have been lost in the static of the transmission.

Another interesting tidbit that has recently come out is that lunar dust smells like caps or firecrackers that had just gone off. Most of the moonwalking astronauts would comment on the smell, the result of lunar dust, which had existed in a vacuum for billions of years, coming into contact with oxygen in the command module. Its properties were completely unknown so steps were taken to ensure it did not ignite during cabin re-pressurization. The astronauts even slept in their helmets and gloves to avoid the irritation from the dust.

There are those who may question the value of some space missions, but the lunar landing will always be humans’ first physical exploration of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

July 3: Apollo 17 geologist/astronaut, Harrison Schmitt born – 1935
July 4: Mars Pathfinder lands on Mars – 1997
July 9: Voyager 2 flies past Jupiter – 1979
July 20: Humans walk on Moon for the first time – 1969
July 24: First rocket launched from Cape Canaveral – 1950
July 25: Svetlana Savitskaya becomes first woman to walk in space – 1984