Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1969, at 03:56 CET, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the moon. The achievement is being celebrated at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a space fans’ “Disneyland”
Timidly, Audrey pokes her hand through the opening in the display case containing the dark-brown moon probe No. 70215.287 and strokes the moon. Audrey is six, the moon rock in front of her, 3.7 billion years old and the size of a matchbox. Audrey’s fingers glide over the surface countless hands have polished to a greasy shine. “So smooth,” she says, “so cool!” Seven other earthlings wait in line behind Audrey for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to touch the moon – even if it is only here in the big exhibition hall at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the legendary space station of the U.S. space agency, NASA.
Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1969 to be exact, a human being stepped onto the moon for the first time. What reads as so commonplace today was a sensation back then, a triumph, unfathomable. For most people soaking up the grainy black-and-white pictures on that summer’s night, it was the biggest TV experience of their life. At 3:56 a.m. Central European Time, 38-year-old U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set his left foot on the surface of the moon and spoke one of those few sentences that, decades on, still echo in the collective memory: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” To this day, the moon is the only celestial body aside from the earth that humans have visited.
Raymond Burrell, a tourist from North Carolina, dramatically borrows the legendary sentence – “That’s one small step for a man …,” – as he crosses the threshold of the gift shop at KSC, and follows it up with a murmured, “This is going to cost me,” as he sees his wife and two daughters already looking at the plush space shuttles (19.99 dollars), astronaut flight suits (69.99 dollars) and astronaut ice creams (4.99 dollars). The 567-square-meter Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida is, after all, a kind of shrine for space fans – even if only the Visitor Complex part is open to the public. From 1968 to 2011, all manned U.S. space flights were launched from nearby Cape Canaveral. Today, coach tours take visitors right to the launching pads from which rockets are still blasted into space. This year, 20 satellites are scheduled to go into orbit from here, next year, 60. Some 17 000 people work here at the site.
It was also from here that the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, set out on their mission in July 1969. On the moon, they left a plaque with the words: “We came in peace for all mankind,” but for the Americans, it was more than anything a sweet triumph in the space race. In the 1960s, during the Cold War, over 400 000 people in the USA were working to outstrip the Soviet Union in the space race. The Soviets had, after all, dealt two heavy blows to the Western world’s pride – once in 1957, when they launched the first satellite, the Sputnik 1; and once again in 1961, when they were the first to send a human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space. In 1966, the United States spent 4.4. percent of the federal budget on NASA, compared with just 0.47 percent today. The race to the moon was a gigantic show of national strength.
The year is 2019, and it’s 8:58 a.m. on an early summer’s day. The temperature is a sultry 28 degrees beneath a cloudy sky. Some 200 people are waiting outside the entrance gates at the KSC. When the national anthem blares from large loudspeakers, they place their right hand on their heart and direct their gaze to the enormous star-spangled banner hanging limp from a mast. A NASA staff member dressed as an astronaut in a white space suit and round helmet turns to face the flag and salutes. The anthem ends, the gates open, the people stream inside.
Every day, thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage to the “Disneyland” of space travel – to a Saturn V rocket 110 meters high and to computer simulators on which they can try their hand at docking onto space stations or gently touching down on the moon with a landing craft. Bolder visitors let themselves be belted into astronaut seats for the Shuttle Launch Experience, which involves a thorough jolting as they watch a film of a space shuttle noisily lifting off. “Imagine you’re sitting at the end of a stick of dynamite,” says the commentator, “and then someone comes along with a lighter.” For 30 dollars, children pose for photos in space suits – and are then superimposed onto moon and Mars landscapes on the computer.
In a hangar of cathedral-like dimensions, the decommissioned Atlantis space shuttle is suspended from the ceiling and spotlit to achieve the desired effect, the glorification of a golden age whose heroes were not only extremely brave, but also symbols of the U.S. “can do” mentality. The unconditional will to succeed and pioneering spirit of the astronauts are preserved for posterity in this museum. Here, on a narrow island off the coast of Florida, amid swamps full of alligators, mangroves and saw palmetto forests, NASA is fighting its biggest battle – for people’s hearts.
We need Apollo 11 moments for today’s young people
The proud U.S. space agency has lost much of its sheen. Budget cuts, internal policy clashes and constant “political” decisions that make little economic sense have taken their toll. It’s been eight years since NASA sent any space shuttles of its own into space. Instead, private companies rent KSC premises and use the infrastructure for commercial space travel. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one, and there’s also Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. NASA’s present employer, President Trump, may be setting his agency ambitious targets – Landing on the moon by 2024! Later continuing on to Mars! – but he also praises private competition, claiming it works more cheaply and efficiently than NASA.
That makes life difficult for Marshall Smith. As Director for Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA, he is responsible for the future, and therefore for new manned moon missions almost 50 years after the last of the 12 people who were ever on the moon departed the earth’s satellite again. Smith was five years old when Neil Armstrong took a walk on the moon. “Seeing that gave my life a direction,” the 55-year-old recalls, “without that defining moment, I would not be here.“ His remit is clear: “In the coming decade, we will begin by creating a permanent human presence in the moon’s orbit, a kind of stopover, known as a ‘gateway.’ That’s essential for preparing moon landings and Mars missions.” The aim is for astronauts to be able to make the six- to eight-month journey to the Red Planet by the 2030s. The biggest challenge here, however, is not the technology, but crew motivation. “Young people don’t have the monumental experience of witnessing Apollo 11,” says Smith. We need Apollo 11 moments for today’s young people.”
2 Kennedy Space center
3 Space X, Virgin Galactic,
4 Cape Canaveral, Startrampen
Management Area Upper St. Johns River Marsh
A good 50 listeners have come along to the Lunch with an Astronaut event in a side room at the visitor center to enjoy rice, chicken, donuts and Wendy Lawrence’s anecdotes. Dressed in her work coverall, Lawrence, 60, describes how it felt to orbit the earth. She was a crew member on four missions between 1995 and 2005, and spent a total of 51 days, three hours and 56 minutes in space shuttles. Cutting hair, sports, experiments, nausea and going to the bathroom – nothing was taboo. During the question-and-answer session, ten-year-old Vivaan Tholasi from Bangalore in India earnestly plants himself in front of the astronaut and reads out 21 questions. “How cold is it in space? Is being weightless fun? Did you feel scared up there?” Wendy grins and asks if he would like to be an astronaut one day? “No, I’m not going to make any rash decisions just because I happen to find something fascinating right now,” is the boy’s precocious reply. The former space shuttle commander’s stunned reply: “Then you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut!”
Later, on the way to her tiny, windowless office, Lawrence grows more serious: “NASA has virtually no control over what it does because that’s up to the president and parliament. There may be money one day, next day, a program is canceled, then we have a shutdown that paralyzes the whole institution for months, and then deadlines are pushed back for political reasons.” Lawrence can speak freely because she is no longer a NASA employee. What is needed is a vision, she says, and patience. “Space exploration takes decades of focused work, and private space travel companies can plan more reliably.” Setbacks occur, as everyone knows, “but only by learning from mistakes and keeping going, can we succeed.”
It’s just after 7 p.m. and the Kennedy Space Center staff have herded the last visitors to the entrance. Trenton Weyant, 16, and his cousin Sierra Fogal, also 16, of Altoona, Pennsylvania head to the parking lot, where their parents are waiting for them. The pair have spent ten hours exploring the site. Trenton wants to study astrophysics so that he can work in the aerospace industry later on. “We only know so much about the universe,” he says, pressing thumb and forefinger together. Then he spreads his arms wide and says, “all the incredible rest is there for us to discover. Us! The first human to set foot on Mars will be from our generation.”
Steps to space
Russia’s Sputnik 1 was the first satellite in orbit
The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to journey into outer space
July 21: Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin (USA) became the first men on the moon
Apollo 17 was the last of six missions to land on the moon
First joint Soviet-American space mission
As part of the Soyuz 31 mission, the East German
cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn was the first German in space
The first U.S. Space Shuttle was launched
The International Space Station (ISS) went into orbit; by July 2019, 236 people had been on board the craft
New manned moon mission to take place
The first humans are scheduled to be heading
to Mars, with a stopover in a spacecraft orbiting the moon