Yesterday’s Launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Brings Back Memories of Apollo 11

 Posted by DrJeff on June 19th, 2009

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Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, is about to become the second human being to walk on the Moon. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, July 20, 1969.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, is about to become the second human being to walk on the Moon. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, July 20, 1969.

This post is a Teachable Moment in the News.

This is crossposted at the Huffington Post HERE.

Yesterday (Thursday, June 18) the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and will reach the Moon next Tuesday, June 23. LRO is a robotic mission that will pave the way for humans to return to the lunar surface. It’s also a timely teachable moment in the news for another reason—


July 20th is coming. I’m waiting for the emotions to wash over me again. It will be the 40th anniversary of the first human footprints on another world, and I lived it.


I remember it so vividly. It was July 16, 1969. At Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Apollo 11—a rocket as tall as a 36-story building—blasted off with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins aboard. The command module Columbia—with barely enough room for the three crew seats—was their home for the 3-day trip to the Moon, and by July 19th they were in orbit.


On July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin crawled into Eagle and descended to the lunar surface. Back on Earth, glued to TVs and radios, hundreds of millions of us … waited. We weren’t sure how we’d know. We weren’t sure what we’d hear. And then it

came …”The Eagle has Landed”—and we were in awe.


I was 11 at the time, watching it unfold on our black and white TV in Uniondale, Long Island. I remember racing outside, looking up at the Moon 240,000 miles away and thinking to myself—there are three people up there!! And they were surely looking back at me, with a beautiful blue Earth appearing 4 times the size in their sky as the Moon was in mine. Can you imagine that sight?


I worked at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum for 8 years in the Laboratory for Astrophysics. I’d walk by Columbia each morning en route to my office. Never when I was 11 did I expect to be so close to it. When I first followed its flight in 1969, Columbia’s journey took it 240,000 miles away from me. And there it was, this most remarkable piece of history, less than an inch below my fingertips resting against the protective plexiglass covering.


At 5:00 pm, I’d often come down from my office in the non-public spaces. I’d head to the gallery floor to be with all those that came from far and wide to this most visited museum on the planet. There were typically many school groups that had traveled to DC from across the nation that were still in the building. Their favorite gathering spot before loading the buses was the Milestones of Flight gallery, home of Columbia, as well as Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and at the time, Orville and Wilber’s Flyer. It was a sacred place for human dreams of flight in air and space.


Every time I came down at the end of the day, I’d walk over to Columbia. It’s as if it were asking me to visit—to re-connect with my past, and to that moment when I was 11 when I knew I wanted to be a space explorer. And almost always without fail, sitting there under Columbia’s comfortable overhang, a group of students casually waiting for the rest of their class. “Do you know what you are sitting under?”, I would ask. They’d all twist their heads up, many of them close to 11 years old, and they didn’t have a clue. How did I feel? It was a depth of hurt that only drove in me a deeper commitment to education.


So from Dr. Jeff the educator, here is my advice. For those of you that lived

it—remember. For those of you that lived it—pass the moment forward to the next generation. And prepare to relive the anniversary next month with your children—and your children’s children. For it was 40 years ago.


Let me help a little.


Here are some relevant pages I wrote that you can

explore and discuss as a family—


•A personal look at the National Mall in Washington, DC, and the National Air and

Space Museum. The page includes a description of the flight of Apollo 11 and the

video of Neil Armstrong placing the first footprint on another world.


• The Nature of our Existence, that speaks to what we know about our place in a

greater space and how we’ve come to know it, and the obligation of each generation

to inspire and teach the next.


• Read the page on Scientists and Engineers as Heroes to get a sense of what we’re

capable of achieving if we work hard and smart.


• On my Favorite Quotes page, read about what poets and explorers have to say about human exploration, and in the last quote by Fred Hoyle, be sure to click on the links for views of Earth from orbit, from the Moon, and from beyond.


• The Resources for Parents page includes ideas for how to use this blog to promote

family discussions on the nature of human exploration, science, and learning; and

at the bottom of the page is a link to a library of Apollo 11 color photographs.



I wanted to post this story early to get everyone excited about the anniversary well in advance of the not-until-the-story-breaks nature of the news cycle. I will repost this piece again in early to mid-July. I’ll also remember to tell you about my very personal Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins stories on another post before July 20th.


Photo Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)



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2 Responses to “Yesterday’s Launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Brings Back Memories of Apollo 11”

  1. Sally Jean Jensen Says:
    June 25th, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    I truly remember that day of the landing. I was on Long Island, NH. (Yes, New Hampshire) I was looking at a very small fuss TV (the reception was poor) and trying to explain this event to a person who was blind. She wanted to know every detail. It was amazing.

  2. amcheval Says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    I remember sitting in front of the TV with my parents following the news, too young to fully comprehend, and afraid they would get lost, remember that the feeling stayed with me until we watched the recovery of the capsule days later ~ thank you for sharing and for bringing back the memory, and thanks to all who cleared, and are still clearing, a path for us to reach the stars. “First we build a Moon base ~ then …” (to the melody of “First we take Manhattan …” L. Cohen)