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50 years after Armstrong’s Moon walk, undertaking still inspires

Director Damien Chazelle, star Ryan Gosling and others break down the special effects that went into Hollywood's version of the history-making moment and why they opted not to use a green screen.

When in 1961, John F. Kennedy committed the nation to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” in an address to Congress, the United States had accumulated a total of 15 minutes of space travel. That limited experience had occurred just 20 days earlier, when Alan Shepard flew the nation’s first short sub-orbital flight, lifting off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral and landing minutes later in the Atlantic Ocean.

But more importantly for Kennedy, the Soviet Union had weeks earlier launched the first human into space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had completed an entire orbit of Earth, earning global praise and spawning deep concern in the U.S. about American technical competence compared to its Cold War rival.

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And a month before his address to Congress, Kennedy had greenlighted the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, suggesting to many that this young president who’d just begun his term was not up to the demands of the office.

In this July 20, 1969 photo provided by NASA shows Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin's panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface.
In this July 20, 1969 photo provided by NASA shows Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin's panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. (Buzz Aldrin / AP)

So, make no mistake, the U.S. space program was born not of scientific curiosity, exploration and discovery, but as a political endeavor. It was driven by festering concerns about U.S. technological superiority — or seeming lack thereof.

Despite this modest beginning, it was less than 100 months after Kennedy’s May 1961 address to Congress launching the U.S. space program that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot upon the Moon. Seldom has an effort as ambitious been executed in such a short time frame. Even today, grand efforts — to cure cancer, fight the opioid crisis, battle climate change — are often referred to as “Moonshots.”

In 1961, very few had an idea of how humans might travel to and land on the Moon and return safely to Earth. But many had envisioned such attempts. Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century, calculated the true elliptical orbits of the planets, also wrote “Somnium,” the dream, where aerial demons carry a voyager to the Moon. Many consider his story to be the first work of science fiction. Around the same time, Cyrano de Bergerac’s “Voyage dans la Lune” launches a traveler toward the Moon by fireworks. Even Edgar Allan Poe got into the lunar fiction act with "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," where his hero constructs a giant balloon to journey to the Moon.

Others proposed more concrete ideas. In the early 20th century, Russian teacher and physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, often called one of the fathers of modern rocketry, described details of a powered rocket flight into space. He even developed a theory of multistage rockets, the basis of modern rocketry. His well-known quote "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever" inspired a generation of rocket pioneers.

Two of those were Hermann Oberth in Germany and Robert Goddard in the U.S.

Oberth consulted on Fritz Lang’s pioneering film, “Frau im Mond” (“The Woman in the Moon”), which popularized thoughts of space exploration. Oberth’s written works inspired the German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, the designer of the German V2 rocket who would go on to design the Saturn V that lifted Apollo 11 to the Moon. Von Braun called Oberth the “guiding-star of my life” and his “first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocketry and space travel.” Oberth, born in 1894, lived long enough to witness the triumph of Apollo 11.

Robert Goddard, a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., built and launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 from his Aunt Effie’s farm in the nearby town of Auburn. This ground-breaking rocket rose a full 41 feet and traveled 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. Today, an obelisk marks the historic launch site, now located on the ninth fairway of a local golf course.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin speaks to 16,000 Destination Imagination Global Finalists on behalf of his nonprofit ShareSpace Foundation.

The work of these pioneers — Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard and von Braun — inspired and led those who transported Americans to the Moon 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969. Kennedy’s inspirational 1961 speech owed much to this international team of physicists, engineers and dreamers who proposed the seemingly impossible, shooting a man on a rocket into space and traveling to distant worlds.

The final 100-month push from John F. Kennedy’s stirring words to Neil Armstrong’s lasting footprints on the Moon was a mammoth undertaking, full of risks and unknowns that continues to inspire half a century later.

Jim O’Leary (jimoleary@comcast.net) retired this spring as the senior scientist at the Maryland Science Center, where he’d worked for 44 years.

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