Sunday marked a seminal event in American (if not Earth) history. Forty-five years before, at 4:17:42 PM EDT, with only seconds of fuel remaining, Commander Neil Armstrong calmly announced to the world, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
I was one of 528 million people around the world who huddled in front of televisions to watch the grainy black and white images being transmitted from the moon as Walter Cronkite provided commentary, barely suppressing his own emotions at witnessing this moment in history. Our breaths held as we experienced an awareness that our world would never be the same again. Armstrong captured the significance of the moment as his booted foot touched the desolate lunar surface, proclaiming the now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That “leap,” in response to President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade was over, defined that decade, if not a generation. It applied the imagination, expertise, and enterprise of more than 300,000 engineers, physicists and scientists (as well as thousands of contractor companies) to fulfill a common vision. A vision that inspired us to go forth, explore new frontiers, and so characteristic of the American character, do the seemingly impossible.
What makes this moment so amazing is that the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean had occurred only 42 years earlier. It took Charles Lindberg 33 hours to make that historic flight. It took the Apollo 11 spacecraft 76 hours to reach lunar orbit. As Lindbergh’s flight had opened the world, Apollo 11’s flight had opened the universe.
The space program that put a man on the moon within a few short years also propelled us decades forward in technology development. Although (contrary to popular belief) the space program did not result in Tang, Velcro, or Teflon, it did apply those technologies in exploration (and survival) in space. Likewise, and consistent with its technology transfer mandate, the science and technology developed for the space program has resulted in more than 1,500 NASA-documented successful “spinoffs” and applications that have had a significant impact on how we live our lives on Earth. All of these critical innovations reflect what can be realized when imaginations, fueled by science, are allowed to soar.
While my own career never took me to space, I am so grateful for growing up in South Florida during the space race. The excitement and confidence in our nation’s abilities to apply science to meet a seemingly impossible challenge and achieve a national vision served me well in my long research career in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. In both Departments, the development and application of science and technology in such areas as cybersecurity protection, law enforcement and first responders’ equipment, infrastructure protection, communications and information sharing, chemical and biological containment, and explosives detection were inspired by the space programs’ model of innovation, partnerships, and sharing of knowledge and technology – all factors critical to developing science and technology vital to those charged with keeping our nation safe.
That long ago summer night, with its “giant leap for mankind,” captured the essence of the human spirit – curiosity, applying knowledge in innovative ways, and the restless desire to push new boundaries. The same things that propelled early man from caves, across unknown oceans and lands, even now inspire us further into the cosmos and a greater understanding of science and the universe, and the application of that knowledge to the betterment of mankind.