Thirty-eight years ago today, Neil Armstrong safely piloted the lunar module Eagle to the Sea of Tranquility. After a very brief time on the moon’s surface, he and Buzz Aldrin left the moon in the knowledge that more explorers would soon follow behind them. The crews of Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 all thought the same thing, as well. It fell to Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt on Apollo 17 to confront the reality of leaving the moon behind with no further Apollo missions to follow. [The Saturn V boosters for Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 can be found on display in Florida, Texas, and Alabama today as earthbound exhibits.]
As frustrated as I am sure the astronauts were that the nation’s commitment to space exploration had faltered so, I am certain none of them could have imagined after Apollo 17’s departure in December 1972 that 35 years would pass without any return to the moon. If you believe NASA timelines (ha!), twelve years from now the first Orion landing on the moon will take place – an interval of 47 years.
How is this possible? To embark on the most remarkable voyages in the history of mankind and then, as soon as we proved we could do so safely, to turn our backs on the heavens… it’s beyond imagining.