The United States and much of the western world mark today the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first space expedition to send a man to walk on the moon. The celebration of this historic achievement comes at a time when, with the US-Soviet space race a thing of the past, the future US dominance in space seems increasingly uncertain.
Celebrations will be held at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the Apollo 11 mission blasted off, Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and Washington’s National Air and Space Museum. US President Barack Obama will kick off events by meeting the crew of the Apollo 11 mission at the White House.
Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, a team of three astronauts from the US space agency NASA touched down on the moon’s crater-covered surface. The words pronounced at the time by Neil A. Armstrong, the mission’s commander, are recited by schoolchildren even today: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he said for the hundreds of technicians at the operating rooms in Houston and millions on Earth glued to their televisions and radios.
US Air Force pilots Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were the other two astronauts on board with Armstrong. “What I want to remember most is the glance between Neil and myself just those seconds after we touched down, because we had just completed the most critical door opening for exploration in all of humanity,” Aldrin told the Fox News Sunday programme, adding that “it was a proud moment, to be a military person and salute that (US) flag on the surface of the moon.”
Most people involved in the space race agree that the moonwalk may not have happened so soon (if ever) had it not been for the competition between the US and the Soviet Union in the tense cold war climate. “Armstrong very rarely speaks to the media”, FRANCE 24 correspondent Guillaume Meyer explained, “but when he came out of his usual reserve for the moonwalk’s 40th anniversary, it was to admit that the space race would not have gone so fast without the Cold War.”
At a press conference on Sunday, Armstrong said, "It was the ultimate peaceful competition, USA versus USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), I will not assert it was a diversion that prevented a war, none the less, it was a diversion, it was intense and it did allow both sides to take the high road with the objectives of science and learning and exploration."
The lunar landing proved to be a huge morale boost for the US, whose image was tarnished by the Vietnam War. Only 12 men, all Americans, have ever walked on the moon, and the last to set foot there was in 1972, at the end of the Apollo missions.
Nevertheless, the space race sparked a significant amount of major technological breakthroughs, particularly in the field of computer technology. “The world would lack much of the hardware and software that exists today had it not be for NASA research and experimentation in the 1960s”, Air et Cosmos journalist Pierre Condon told FRANCE 24.
Today, however, the future of US space exploration is far from certain. While other nations such as Russia, China and even India and Japan are honing and expanding their own space programmes, lack of funding may jeopardise the future of NASA’s ambitions plans to establish manned lunar bases by 2020 for further exploration to Mars under the Constellation project.
Obama ordered a review of the project’s skyrocketing budget (estimated at over 150 billion dollars) upon entering office. A blue-ribbon panel of experts headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine is due to issue recommendations in late August. With the current global economic downturn and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on, the President may reconsider the USA’s commitment to the space programme. “I think we are at an extremely critical juncture as we celebrate this anniversary,” aerospace history expert John Logsdon told AFP. “Without government funding, nothing happens”, he added.
Condon believes it would be “a bad idea to stop the manned exploration of space” because of “environmental concerns”. If Earth becomes too polluted, “the only way out is space”, he said, adding that “the destiny of mankind is expansion”.