On 21 July 1969 (at 2:56am GMT/UTC, just before 1pm Eastern Australian time), man first set foot on the moon. This was six hours after lunar module, the Eagle – from the three-part spacecraft of NASA’s Apollo 11 Mission – had landed on the lunar surface in the “Sea of Tranquillity”.
Everyone throughout the Western world gathered around their TV sets waiting with baited breath as mission commander, Neil Armstrong, exited the lunar module, stepped down onto the lunar surface and said his famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”
Twenty minutes later, the other astronaut in the lunar module – pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Jr) – joined Armstrong on the lunar surface for over two hours collecting lunar material (more than 20 kg) and having a general frolic.
This live broadcast broke the then-record for the largest worldwide television audience. In an era when owning a television set was a privilege, community spirit saw families around the world open their homes so others could see history in the making. And it was the state-of-the-art, giant radio telescope at Parkes in central NSW called “The Dish” that provided nearly all of the 2 ½ hour footage of the landing that NASA relied upon and the world saw in amazement.
Even back then, Australia was a real go-to country for exceptional and reliable astronomical observation, not just because of our position at the other end of the earth (antipodean) and clear skies, but also due to our technological capacity, embrace and ingenuity.
2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing and we watch with interest the space aspirations of many nations and what part Australia may again play in helping to fulfil them.
Celebrate this day of human genius by:
- if you are near Parkes, visiting the CSIRO Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre
- if you are near Canberra, visiting the CSIRO Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in the Brindabella Ranges
- familiarise yourself with the recent creation Australia's first Space Agency
- downloading an astronomy app for you, your kids, grandkids or friends to observe and navigate the night skies together
- if you're old enough to remember, share with the younger generation your memories of the moon landing
- grabbing a small telescope or binoculars to get a clearer view of the Moon and the night sky and all its glory
- talking, playing or imagining with the younger generation what space travel (and even settlement on the moon or Mars) would be like, including all its logistical challenges, and/or
- sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, budding astronomers and those simply fascinated by what the human mind, freedom to explore, commitment, logic, common sense and ingenuity can achieve.
The moon landing was a defining moment in world history a human triumph. It also effectively ended the “space race” between America – then leader of the free world, and thankfully still today – and the Socialist Soviet Union as to who could put a man on the moon and get him back safely first.
American pride was on the line for another reason too. In his speech of 25 May 1961 to Congress, then President John F Kennedy committed America to achieving this goal by the end of that decade, so time was fast running out.
The third astronaut on the mission, Michael Collins, was pilot of the command module, Columbia, which remained in lunar orbit throughout the landing, rendezvousing with the Eagle after it had successfully ascended from the lunar surface.
With all three astronauts back on board, the Eagle was jettisoned into lunar orbit (now space junk somewhere on the lunar surface) and the 2-3 day journey back to Earth commenced, with the Columbia splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near the islands of American Samoa on 24 July.
Along with a number of other world leaders, NASA invited then PM of Australia, John Gorton, to compile a message for microfilming which was to be sealed in a capsule and left on the lunar surface. Australia's Prime Ministerial message on the moon reads:
“Australians are pleased and proud to have played a part in helping to make it possible for the first man from earth to land on the moon. This is a dramatic fulfilment of man’s urge to go ‘always a little further’; to explore and know the formerly unknown; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. May the high courage and the technical genius which made this achievement possible be so used in the future that mankind will live in a universe in which peace, self-expression, and the chance of dangerous adventure are available to all.
13 July 1969