First Man Can Inspire a “Giant Leap” in All of Us

by Robert Reeves

The movie First Man premiers to the public this month and has already created much good buzz within the space enthusiast community.  First Man is, of course, about the life of Neil Armstrong in the decade leading up to his historic command of Apollo 11, the first manned landing on the Moon half a century ago.  That the movie has an enthusiastic thumbs up from Neil Armstrong’s own son is endorsement enough for me…  I’m going to see this movie!  The Moon and our national space program have been ingrained in my soul for the past 60 years, so I am delighted that a major Hollywood production is carrying the torch for this fantastic piece of history in humanity’s evolution.

As I said, the Moon has been my constant companion for over half a century.  Like many of my generation, the Moon is what spurred a lifelong interest in astronomy.  By default, that interest led to pursuit of other sciences such as geology, chemistry, physics, biology, mechanics, optics, and meteorology.  Since my first telescopic glimpse of the Moon in 1958, the quest for the Moon has been a dominant force enriching my understanding of our own planet, other worlds, and the universe that surrounds our fair Earth.

Beyond the personal connection to our natural satellite, the Moon was essential for the creation of life on Earth.  Without the cataclysmic birth of the Moon 4.6 billion years ago, life as we know it on our planet likely would not exist.  The Moon was an essential link in the complex march through time that began with simple primordial chemicals in ancient oceans and ended with cognizant and thinking human beings on this planet.  Without the tidal effects of the Moon to stir the mix of primitive watery chemistry, the evolutionary path of life on Earth would have been very different, possibly not happening at all.

With a nudge from the Moon, life did evolve on our world and embarked on a billion-year long evolution that populated the Earth with exotically diverse plants and animals, most of which have not survived the eons-long process of evolution.  Human beings are a relatively recent product of Earth’s biological evolution, having populated this world only in the past tens of thousands of years, a mere blink in the long timeline of Earth’s biology.  But in that astonishingly short time, humans have accomplished incredible things, and indeed, have even traveled to the Moon!

The ghostly orb of Luna influenced civilizations for millennia before mankind traveled to that world.  Revered as a deity, feared by the superstitious, used as a timekeeping standard, and a lantern to light the night, the Moon has been an inseparable part of the human existence since we became a thinking and creative species.  Since the establishment of Earth’s great ancient civilizations, the Moon has inspired poetry, prose, and dreams that have become literary standards.

The Space Age reach for the Moon served as a springboard for our explorations of the Solar System and our understanding of the evolution of neighboring worlds.  The research and technology developed to reach the Moon has directly influenced the lives of virtually all inhabitants of this Earth.  No one can deny the benefits of ubiquitous powerful computers and hand-held communications devices that allow us to directly communicate with almost anyone on this planet or access any kind of knowledge.

Without the Moon, our world today might be lifeless, without volumes of literature to inspire our imagination, without the science we use daily to learn, globally communicate, and even to save lives in the face of formerly fatal illnesses.  Without the Moon, humans would not be a space faring species poised to achieve greatness.

On a more personal level, the Moon is an essential part of my love for astronomy.  The Moon is what initially lured me to the night sky.  For those of us lucky enough to have focused on the Moon before the Space Age, the journey has been bittersweet.  We watched as the Moon went from a mysterious unknown world to a destination visited by American heroes who dared to ride a pillar of fire and set foot on another world.  Then just as mankind leaped off this planet, it ended on a political whim.  But the Moon still lures us, beckons us to again leave our home planet and explore fascinating destinations in our Solar System.  The Moon is essential for both our human destiny and our personal love of astronomy.

In my youth, the Moon prior to the Space Age was a blank slate.  Despite several centuries of scrutiny by talented observers, we knew little about its origin or composition and nothing about its interior.   As a lunar novice in 1959, it was startling to me to find out how limited our knowledge of the Moon was prior to the Space Age.  At the time, newspaper headlines chronicled the first American efforts to send rocket probes to the Moon.  I found contemporary astronomy books only described the Moon in the barest of terms.  I chanced upon an encyclopedia from the 1880s and was amazed to see little difference between the “modern” 1959 descriptions of the Moon and those from a 19th century encyclopedia.  The Moon was just as unknown at the dawn of the Space Age as it was when my grandfather was born in the horse-and-buggy era!

Over the past centuries, many mistaken and strange theories have been advanced to explain the unknowns about the Moon.  Much of what we assumed before the Space Age was swept away by later investigations using robotic spacecraft and the manned Apollo landings.  But these on-site explorations did not reveal all the mysteries about the Moon.  There are still lunar secrets to divine with 21st century technologies.

I fondly remember the brilliant era when America and the former Soviet Union engaged in a political and scientific race to be the first to send mankind to another world.  But now, well to the 21st century, the future of manned spaceflight and a return to the Moon is very much in doubt.  Those of us who experienced the brief glory of Apollo’s footsteps on the Moon will not live to see such an event again.

Robotic lunar exploration continues today, although not at the breathtaking pace of the Apollo era during the Cold War. Today, government funding for American space exploration continues to shrink in the face of modern terrestrial priorities. In the 21st century, the Moon is no longer the province of Cold War superpowers.  It is a science target for anyone with the resources and will to hurl exploratory craft toward the Moon.

But for the observer, the Moon still has the same fascination it held in the 1960s when it was a destination for mankind.  A new generation of astronomers who were not yet born during the Apollo era greet the Moon with fresh curiosity. Thus, the Moon has turned full circle to its pre-Space Age status as a target for amateur astronomers.

Amateurs now have a new sense of wonder about the Moon because we can look at the bright orb with an understanding that eluded prior generations.  We now find ourselves equipped with telescopic and photographic instruments capable of matching the best equipment used by professionals during the heyday of lunar exploration.  Earth’s Moon awaits us to again explore its exotic surface and rediscover the wonders that fascinated us before Apollo took us to that nearby world.

It is my fervent wish that the movie First Man will reignite the public’s curiosity about our Moon.  If this movie achieves “blockbuster” status, it will demonstrate that the public is still fascinated with exploring the unknown and pushing the human reach ever closer to the stars.  I have never lost my love of the Moon in the half century since Armstrong’s “…one small step for a man…” upon the dusty plains of Tranquility Base.  I hope you will also see this movie and understand the thrill of exploring a world we can see in amazing detail from our own back yards with a modest telescope.  If the Moon grasps your heart and tugs at your soul, you, too, are part of the rest of Neil Armstrong’s famous quote… you are part of “…one giant leap for mankind.”