Editorial: Lunar landing a shining moment with local ties

  • In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette on Monday, July 21, 1969.

Published: 7/19/2019 4:55:24 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 4:55:12 PM

Fifty years ago, people around the world with their black and white TVs tuned in to see three American astronauts chart a new frontier in human exploration.

Fulfilling the pledge President Kennedy made eight year earlier — the landing on the moon — the sight of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the ghostly gray, barren surface, the “giant leap for mankind,” became one of the century’s defining moments, an achievement that briefly united the world in awe and admiration.

Space exploration has continued since then, moving on in other directions, but the moon retains the same hold on the human imagination it has had since our species first gazed into the night sky. Sending astronauts to walk on its surface was transforming for them, and in some ways for all of us, but it hardly diminished the mysteries of its ever changing face, its silvery reflected light, its dominion over the ocean tides.

As we reflect once more on the impact of that extraordinary mission, it’s worth noting the stories of some with connections to our own little patch of Earth who played, and continue to play, a part in the exploration of space.

Like Joseph Gavin, who was living at Applewood Retirement Community in Amherst when he died in 2010 at 90.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gavin had worked on early jet aircraft engines during World War II. Employed by the Grumman Corp., he was put in charge of the lunar module program for the Apollo program, managing a 7,500-member team that made the Eagle — which Armstrong famously announced had landed.

As explained in his New York Times obituary, Gavin had to make sure that the craft would land gently on the moon’s surface, then take off again under its own power to rejoin the command module in lunar orbit. “The margins for error were so tiny that Commander Armstrong had only 20 seconds of fuel left after changing landing sites because of rocks.”

Blastoff was another tense moment — it could not be simulated in earthly testing. But everything went smoothly, a success that would be repeated in five more missions. Uncertainty was a given in preparations for the moon landing. “So we developed a computer program, based on tests of a quarter-scale model of the lunar module, and we ran the program through some 400 different landing conditions,” Gavin said in an interview with Technology Review, published by MIT, in 1994.

As the Times obituary recounted, in April 1970, the lunar module acted as a lifeboat after an oxygen tank exploded aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft. The mission’s three astronauts transferred to the command module before returning to Earth.

All the while, Gavin and others were at mission control in Houston helping to guide the men to safety. NASA awarded Gavin its distinguished public service medal for his role in the crisis.

A scientist with a key role in Apollo 11 was Donald Wise, now emeritus professor of geology at the University of Massachusetts, who served for two years on advisory committees for the space program and later was named chief scientist and deputy director of a small group linking NASA’s science and engineering halves, according to his online UMass biography.

His specialty during the lunar landing was pinpointing the lander’s exact location on the moon’s surface and figuring out what the astronauts would do next.

After finishing with Apollo, Wise moved to UMass where he remains active, at 88, still developing his theory that the moon was originally a part of Earth that broke off.

Another area scientist is involved with continuing studies of the only items brought back from those few moon missions — rocks. Darby Dyar, an astronomy professor at Mount Holyoke College, will lead a research team from Mount Holyoke and UMass studying moon rocks that have never been exposed to the Earth’s atmosphere.

By analyzing those rocks, formed from occasional magma eruptions on the moon’s surface, Dyar and her fellow researchers can glean insights into the bigger questions of how planets and moons form, and why some form with water and become habitable.

Of around 2,000 samples that came back from the moon, only six are left unstudied, and only a few of those are pristine and untouched.

Dyar is excited by the research opportunity — her team is one of nine given access to the rocks by NASA — and dazzled by the pea-sized samples, salvaged from a quarter-million miles away, untouched by water, wind or any other of Earth’s erosive processes.

Then there’s the astronaut herself — Catherine “Cady” Coleman of Shelburne, a veteran of three trips into space who spent five months aboard the International Space Station in 2011, the year NASA retired the program after 30 years. Holder of a doctoral degree in polymer science from UMass, she delivered a taped commencement address while aboard the Space Station to the class of 2011 at the university.

Coleman is a booster of space exploration, which has moved under the control of private contractors since the U.S. withdrew public funds from the enterprise this century.

“As much as I love my family, there’s so much good work to do up there, and not enough time in the day to do it all and be a human being as well,” she told an audience at the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce in January 2012.

Space exploration will continue to attract interest and investment — even Donald Trump talks about putting astronauts on Mars — but most of us rely on the stories of those who’ve been there, worked to get people there, or studied the things they’ve brought back, to gain some insight into life away from Earth.

The landing on the moon remains a shining moment when something that had seemed impossible became a new reality.

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