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Astronomy professors reflect on Apollo 11, its impact on them

July 15th, 2009

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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Reflected in his viser is Neil Armstrong, who took the photo. (NASA)

On July 20, 1969, after a decade-plus-long race with the Soviet Union, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon. Their landing fulfilled a promise made in 1962 by then-President John F. Kennedy that the United States would land a man on the moon and return safely to Earth by the end of the decade. When their first steps onto the lunar surface were shown worldwide, the world came together for one brief moment.

The moonwalk captured the country’s imagination. Moon globes became household items. Schoolchildren received paper reproductions of the plaque the astronauts left on the moon.

The mission also spurred a new generation of thinkers to study outer space. To commemorate its 40th anniversary, UofL Today asked astronomy professors Gerard Williger and Tim Dowling to share their memories of the first moonwalk and discuss its significance today.

Q: Where were you when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon?

Dowling: I was 6 going on 7 in July 1969, and I actually heard the news that the ‘Eagle has Landed’ from the pilot over the loudspeaker on a plane my family was on to Boston, to visit my grandparents. It was quite thrilling. We watched all the subsequent news coverage on a trusty black-and-white Zenith TV.

Williger: I was 6 and half years old. I was at home. I remember my parents said ‘Let’s watch the moonwalk.’ I thought that sounded like a game. It was really late at night. I could barely stay awake. I saw this space movie. I could barely make anything out. It was really low quality. I thought, ‘This was way worse pictures than what I see in the movies.’ I saw this guy running around. I didn’t really know how important it was until a few years later.

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Tim Dowling

Q: What do you remember?

Dowling: I remember how the first lunar astronauts had to spend time in quarantine after their arrival, a procedure that was eventually dropped, and I remember they were always unshaven when they first arrived on the deck of the recovery boat.

Williger: (The process) seemed so hard. I appreciated how hard it was. I read a lot about the early space shots. They sent this mission up in steps. First you sent up a satellite. Then you sent up a monkey or a dog, depending on which country you were. Then you send up a person, but just up and down. Then you sent up a person in a teeny, tiny spacecraft, like a tin can. You go up a few times and then you come down. That took years. And then they sent up two two-man spaceships. They did it in steps. I was impressed out how systematic it was. I was just hugely impressed because it was hard.

Q. Did the Apollo 11 mission inspire you to pursue your current career or has it influenced you at all?

Dowling: Absolutely. I am a planetary scientist because of the Apollo mission and the subsequent exploration of the Solar System, especially by the Voyager spacecraft.

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Gerard Williger

Williger: It did inspire me. Exploration is exciting. Discovery is exciting. I liked dealing with numbers when I was a kid, and astronomy and physics are full of numbers. How far away is the moon? How big is the moon? How fast do they go? I was good at numbers. It was the discovery. The unknown. It was the frontier. You can explore forever because space is infinite. Well, now I know our universe has a finite size but as far as we’re concerned it’s infinite. We can go as far out as we want and we won’t run out of things to explore. It’s exploration and discovery.

Q: Why do you think this mission still resonates with people today?

Dowling: Earth is our species’ crib, and the Apollo mission will always be the moment in history when we walked out of the nursery and into the rest of the universe.

Williger: This country is a frontier country. There’s this long history of the American frontier, and space is ‘the final frontier.’ It resonates because it’s frontier, it’s discovery, it’s adventure. Human factor is very important. These are living, breathing people. Your classmates can go up. Your teachers can go up. These are real people. They can come back down and they can talk to you and shake your hand… These are real people. But they’re doing this exciting new stuff — discovering a new frontier. For the last 500 years, there’s been a frontier here. In Americait was ‘out west.’ But now you live in a condo and flip on ‘AC.’ The land is tamed now. But up there, it’s still untamed. Maybe that’s why the United States is so strong as compared to other countries.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Dowling: Today’s generation is inspired to make planet Earth green and sustainable with the same zeal that my generation had for space exploration. I can see it in my 11-year-old daughter’s eyes. Today’s mission is just as thrilling as the one we started 40 years ago.

Williger: I think we did lose a little bit of our fire in terms of discovery. This is a great country with great resources. But we need the will to do it. And a lot of things are very expensive. Apollo was a very expensive mission for its time. Sometimes we tend to get blasé. … (The next generation) shuttle is the most complicated moving machine ever built. When you think about it, it has to act like a rocket, space craft and an airplane. One little ding and it can be destroyed. We’ve lost, too. The discoveries we’re making with things like the Hubble, we get blase about it. When I look at my students, many of whom are about 20 years old, they remember things for about the last 10 years pretty well. I think it’s important to keep a sense of history, where we were and how long it took us to get here and how much hard work it took us to get here. No, the space shuttle hasn’t always been around. No, we haven’t always had a Hubble. These things actually are very revolutionary. We need to keep that sense of history and to remember that you have to try really hard to do the next great thing. It’s important to know where you’ve been so that you can know where you’re going.

Related Links

Apollo 11
Apollo 40th Anniversary
Apollo 11: Forty Years Later (from The Paley Center for Media)
The First Moonwalk – Complete and Original Version (YouTube)
Moon Landing 1969 extended footage (YouTube)
Landing on the Moon: July 20, 1969 (You Tube)

UofL’s Rauch Planetarium
Planetarium event to celebrate 40th anniversary of moon walk
Astronaut Training at Rauch Planetarium Space Camp (You Tube)

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