On this date in 1969, Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to land on another celestial body. Where were you (or your parents) that day? Does this remarkable feat still fill you with awe?
You may already know Armstrong's famous words when he stepped off the footpad of the Eagle Lunar Module: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Less familiar to most people is the response in Houston to the safe landing of the descent module when it had only about 25 seconds of fuel left. Charles Duke, the staff member of Houston ground support who was responsible for communicating with the crew, expressed everyone's relief: "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot." What a moment of overwhelming gratitude, plus a dash of humor!
It's also less widely known that two and a half hours after landing, Aldrin — a Webster (Texas) Presbyterian Church elder — radioed Earth with these words: "This is the LM pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way." He then took communion. NASA was fighting a lawsuit about religious broadcasts from space, so he kept this devotional act quiet. Webster Presbyterian still has the chalice he used, and the congregation continues to commemorate this event on the Sunday closest to July 20.
During a television broadcast on the last night before splashdown, the three Apollo 11 astronauts expressed their awe and appreciation for all that had taken place:
"The Saturn V rocket which put us in orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, every piece of which worked flawlessly. ... We have always had confidence that this equipment will work properly. All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of a people. ... All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, 'Thank you very much.' "
— Michael Collins, the astronaut who piloted the command spacecraft alone in lunar orbit
"Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. 'When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?' "
— Buzz Aldrin
"We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you."
— Neil Armstrong
Who among us has not wondered what it would feel like to be Neil Armstrong? The movie First Man asks us to do just that. It's based on Armstrong's authorized biography, written by James R. Hansen, a former historian for NASA.
Consider the biggest step you have ever taken, the achievement of which you are most proud. Now bring to mind everyone along the way who contributed to that achievement, whether by encouraging you, by building equipment you needed, by donating time or money to make it possible, or by helping plant the seeds of the idea in your mind in the first place. Offer them thanks in your heart. If possible, choose one or two of them to thank in words, written or spoken. Our great leaps are intricately woven from the labors of many, many people.