Can you love me, and still choose,
Whispers that I cannot hear?
Late to love, how can I bear to lose
Content for some inconsistent sphere?
Take my silence, though intended;
Fill it with the joy you feel.
Take my courage, now pretended –
You, my love, will make it real.
That is an excerpt from 'To a husband who must seek the stars,' a poem by Pat Collins, wife to Michael Collins, a day before he embarked on the historic Moon-landing mission.
Fifty years ago, two astronauts set foot on a dusty ball of rock up so high in the sky; a remarkable feat that changed the course of mankind forever.
The Apollo Moon landing started off as a promise made in the early 1960s by the then US President John F Kennedy, who declared his country would perform a manned landing on the Moon and return safe to the Earth before the end of the decade.
No fewer than 4,00,000 people were involved in the this mammoth mission of the century, where the US president plucked out a portion of time from the distant future and neatly inserted it into a decade that saw major advancement in the field of science and technology, a phenomenon that had only happened previously in the face of a war.
He had his reasons for this proclamation. When Kennedy became president in January 1961, Russia had sent Sputnik 1, its first artificial satellite, already into space. Further on in the April that followed, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space even before the US had started an astronaut programme. Many Americans now thought that their country was losing the space race to the Soviets.
This new-found deadline required a workforce that was capable to deliver his promise. NASA hired quickly, risking it all by avoiding interviews, and evaluating employees based on only their output.
The engineers at the Mission Control in Houston were incredibly young, their average age being just 26 years. This was exactly what the ambitious mission needed. A fearless bunch of young men capable to risk all odds. In fact, a leap into the unknown.
The landing on the Moon, as we know it, was not an ordinary feat. It were the crucial, decisive moments before landing that balanced the 'Eagle,' the lunar module, over the thin line of victory.
Inside the lunar module, Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were seeing unfamiliar computer codes. With just minutes to land, bells and whistles blared with flashing lights beaming off the tiny buttons.
"It's a 1202," the astronauts relayed the error message to an equally clueless group of engineers down at the Mission Control.
"Give me a reading on the twelve-o-two," repeated Armstrong through the crackling transmission. A vital 15 seconds had passed ever since the two had spotted the alarm, while the team on the ground were scrambling for a response to the glitch informed through the transmission. From the many simulations that the module had been put through before the actual flight, they were certain that the risk-it-all situation would not hamper the Moon-landing mission; at least that's what they’d hoped so.
The computer system aboard the craft that had coordinated the entire mission from blast-off to splash, and had codes that had lesser prowess than those running in today’s smartphones. But the sheer volume of data had caused an unprecedented overflow of information, which led to the 1202 error.
Bracing all odds in the midst of dilemma, they quickly had an answer.
Mission Control : We're GO on that flight.
The Eagle shakily descends.
Mission Control : You're looking great to us, Eagle.
Eagle, Houston, you're GO for landing, over.
Aldrin: Roger, understand, GO for landing.
But the uncertainties of the mission hadn’t ended there. The crew aboard the Eagle were aghast when they’d seen that the pre-planned landing site in a crater, charted before take off, was indeed ridden of boulders the size of large cars.
Armstrong leapt to take control of the module, swiftly flying past the crater, manually manoeuvring for a safer site.
Mission Control : Thirty seconds.
This meant that they had a meagre 30 seconds left before all the fuel that remained on board exhausted. It was either an abort, or a final leap of faith.
Aldrin : Mode Control, Descent engine command override.
Mission Control : We copy you down, Eagle.
Armstrong: Houston, Tranquility Base here.
The Eagle has landed.
And that was it. Humanity defined history. We finally conquered the Moon. Armstrong went on to say the legendary line, which in all reality, was a giant leap not only for the space race, but for every piece of technology to further evolve on Earth.
From the tiny cameras on our cellphones, fire-resistant uniforms, shock-resistant buildings, sealed food, to scratch-resistant glass used in corrective glasses and airplane windows, the contributions of every succeeding space programme were endless.
Back in New Delhi, Smt. Indira Gandhi deemed the spectacle as among the most exciting and significant moments in the history of man. "The irrepressible spirit of man," she said, "leaps from one celestial body to the next, in a small vehicle of its own making."
Today, exactly fifty years after man had called the Moon his home, everybody wants to go up to the shining globular rock in space.
Chandrayaan-2, India's ambitious Moon mission after a hugely successful Chandraayan-1, will blast off from Satish Dhawan Space Reaearch Centre at Sriharikota to answer those questions left behind by its elder sibling. Russia, China and South Korea will soon follow suit.
NASA plans to revisit the Moon once again with its Artemis program, named after the Greek goddess and her twin sister Apollo. The mission, scheduled for 2024 plans to put a woman on the Moon for the first time. It was 'one small step for man' after all. Why should boys have all the fun, eh NASA?
The Apollo Moon landings were for certain one of humanity's most ambitious attempts to circumvent the limits of space and time. They required centuries worth of knowledge and understanding of the universe and its every being, combined with the skill and effort of millions of people, united for a single cause. It is also a reminder to the inevitable realities that humankind faces today, that need desperate answering.
In the words of Indira Gandhi herself, "Has man who seeks heavenly suburbs, made his own Earth more habitable, friendly and beautiful? Let us direct this power of man which soars starwards into strengthening the bonds of peace and brotherhood on Earth."