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A fire on the moon

Forty years ago this week, three men were strapped into a metal capsule perched atop a 36-story marvel of engineering that had three million parts, enough liquid hydrogen to blow up a small city, and five titanic rocket engines, but less computing power than you can find today on your desktop PC.

On July 16, 1969, the fuse was lit and the three-stage Saturn V, the most powerful machine ever built, lifted majestically off the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The Saturn V did not exist eight years earlier, when President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would send a man to the moon before the end of the decade.

Human beings had never escaped the gravitational pull of the Earth, and even our best scientists were not certain of what it would take to get to the moon, or if it was even possible to land on its surface. The technology, manpower and expertise had to be organized and created from scratch in the most complex enterprise ever undertaken.

The race to the moon was filled with breathtaking episodes of triumph and touched by tragedy.

Alan Shepard’s flawless 15-minute flight in a tiny Mercury capsule, the first American in space, was followed by Gus Grissom’s adventure. As a nervous Gus sat in his bobbing capsule waiting for an aircraft carrier to pick him up after he parachuted back to Earth, he prematurely blew the hatch, sending the capsule to the bottom of the ocean.

Gus was plucked out of the water by a Navy helicopter, but he and two other astronauts met a tragic end five years later when a spark in their Apollo capsule — which had been filled with pure oxygen during a test run on the launch pad — caught fire, incinerating the crew in a matter of seconds.

The two-man Gemini program, which followed the solo Mercury flights, featured a series of astonishing firsts: the first space walk by an astronaut, the first rendezvous and docking by two space vehicles, the first weeklong space mission.

The debut of the Lunar Module (LEM), the strange, spider-shaped craft designed for the moon landing, was not inspiring. Neil Armstrong, already a space veteran in the Gemini program, took the LEM out for its first test flight on Earth and promptly crashed in a parking lot.

Apollo 8 provided an unforgettable and welcome respite to the unrelenting bad news of 1968 when it circled the moon and, on Christmas Eve, sent back the first incredible view of Earth rising over a lunar landscape as astronaut Frank Borman read the words of Genesis from the Bible.

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong, a soft-spoken pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio, and Buzz Aldrin, a hyperactive space engineer from Montclair, New Jersey, descended to a barren, crater-filled field on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility in a LEM they called Eagle.

Armstrong manipulated the small thrusters on the LEM and gently coaxed the craft over boulders and craters, looking for a smooth spot to set it down. With less than 30 seconds of fuel left—and a decision to abort the landing on the lips of frazzled mission controllers in Houston—Armstrong calmly counted off the last few feet on the altimeter and noted that the LEM was ”kicking up some dust.”

For a few agonizing seconds, an entire planet about 250,000 miles away in the airless black void of space held its collective breath. Then:

”Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

A few hours later, after patiently listening to Buzz Aldrin’s numerous requests to let him go first, Neil Armstrong gingerly stepped down the Eagle’s ladder in his bulky white spacesuit. He paused at the last step, perhaps contemplating the theories of some skeptics at NASA who had postulated that the surface of the moon could not support the weight of a man. The first man who stepped on the moon would simply sink and never be heard from again, they said.

Armstrong jumped off the ladder, and said ”That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Forty years later, human beings on Earth are still grappling with age-old problems of war, poverty and disease, and some modern human-created nightmares like global warming and nuclear proliferation. From time to time, we wonder if the inexorable march of progress has faltered, if perhaps we are sliding backwards.

We wonder if we still have the right stuff.

But high above us in the nighttime summer sky, the moon beckons, carrying Neil Armstrong’s footprint and waiting for us to take another giant leap.

They said it couldn’t be done. We did it.

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