Thirty-nine Years

             The summer of 1969 was a remarkable time. We had not seen anything like it before, and we would witness it only five more times—and never see its like again after December, 1972.  It was a glimmer, spanning barely three years.

            It was during that bright, shining moment, the summer of 1969 that three human beings rocketed from a spaceport in Florida bound for the moon.  Their names were Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong.  Two of them would walk on the moon.  One of them would be the first human being to ever have done such an audacious thing.

            All three astronauts on that voyage were born in 1930—approximately 39 years before they would make their remarkable trip.  1930 was the year when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.  Jet airplanes had not been invented yet.  Robert Goddard had launched his first liquid fueled rocket only four years earlier.  The V-2 rocket, derived from Goddard’s work, that Germany would use against England during World War II was still more than a decade in the future.  The most widely used passenger plane in 1930 was the Ford Tri-Motor, a piston-engined aircraft which carried only eight passengers. The first round-the-world flight was completed only a year earlier, not by an airplane, but rather by a rigid, hydrogen-filled airship, the Graf Zeppelin.  The Graf Zeppelin was the same aircraft that had recently inaugurated the first commercial transatlantic service.

            Antibiotics such as Penicillin had yet to be invented.

            Over the thirty-nine years separating them from their birth to their trip to the moon, the world went through the Great Depression and the Second World War.  Nuclear energy was tapped, the atom bomb dropped.  The first computer was created and the electronic industry was born.  Jet engines were invented and passenger air travel became common.  The same year that Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, the Boeing Company introduced the 747 jetliner.

            After President Kennedy’s 1961 speech before a joint session of congress committing the United States to placing a “man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” within a decade, the U.S. Congress had appropriated sufficient funds to accomplish that task, and so, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for a man.”

            But the will that accomplished that feat was not able to sustain a continued press into space on a more permanent basis.  After barely three years, the United States turned away from the moon.  Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander, became the last man to walk on the moon on December 14, 1972.  No one has gone back in thirty-nine years, and in fact, no nation on earth—not the United States, not anyone else—even has the capability of placing a human on the surface of the moon any more. 

            How has the world changed since that Sunday in July when two men first visited the moon?  The supersonic jetliner Concorde which took its first flight in 1969 was retired from service in 2003.  Currently, there are no supersonic passenger aircraft in service.

Computers have gone from a few expensive machines to becoming ubiquitous.  The computing power of your desktop computer is greater than all the computers combined that NASA used to land the first people on the moon. In 1969, there was no such thing as a personal computer.  But according to a Wired Magazine article published this July, there are now 1.2 billion personal computers in the world, containing 92 quadrillion transistors.  In 1969 cellphones didn’t exist.  Now there are 3.3 billion on the planet.

            In 1969 the disease smallpox killed close to two million people. Somewhere between 300 and 500 million people died from the disease during the twentieth century.  But by 1979, the disease had been rendered extinct.  Smallpox is the first, and so far the the only, human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated from nature.

Space tourism has just begun.  Since 2001, five people have taken trips to the International Space Station.  The tickets cost about 20 million dollars each.  Meanwhile, several hundred people have paid two hundred thousand dollars for tickets on Virgin Galactic’s forthcoming suborbital SpaceShipTwo flights. Of course, at one time, it was only the wealthy who could afford trips on airplanes.

Satellite television and satellite radio have become commonplace, while back in 1969 when we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing about on the moon, we still got our black and white television signal from rabbit ears on top of the set.  It wouldn’t be until 1972 that more than fifty per cent of the televisions in the United States were color sets.

Thirty-seven years after the first moon landing, some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh were loaded aboard New Horizons and launched toward the world he discovered in 1930: Pluto.  Come this summer—also in July—both his ashes and that space probe will arrive there for a visit.