Jimmy Westlake: Thanks, Neil, for everything

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

I was going into the 11th grade when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another world. It was the hot summer of ’69 and I was visiting my Aunt Alice in Appleton City, Mo. I had eaten so many fresh strawberries that week that I had broken out in a rash. But, there we were, all of us huddled around the TV in the living room of Aunt Alice’s farmhouse, as the fuzzy, black-and-white images flickered on the screen.

An indistinct figure awkwardly descended the ladder on the long leg of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), paused for a moment, then made a little jump to the lunar surface and said those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The U.S. space program and I grew up together. When Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, I was a second-grader building rockets out of cardboard tubes and balsa wood and launching them skyward. When Ed White made his historic spacewalk in 1965, I was in sixth grade, becoming the first kid on my block to successfully launch a toad into space (almost) and return him safely to Earth. When he, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee tragically died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, I was in eighth grade, hand-grinding a six-inch mirror for a homemade telescope that I would use to explore space from my backyard. And, when Frank Borman and the crew of Apollo 8 made that first break from Earth orbit and traveled to the moon in 1968, setting the stage for Apollo 11, I was a sophomore in high school, studying Cepheid variable stars for my science project with the 36-inch telescope at Fernbank Science Center in Decatur, Ga.

I watched them all, every launch, every splashdown. I traveled into space with each of those pioneers. When Neil stepped off the LEM, I stepped onto the moon’s surface with him. We all did. We were proud Americans, leading the way into space and fulfilling JFK’s 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon and safely return him to Earth before the 1960s ran out. JFK wasn’t around to see his vision for all of us become a reality, but it did, 43 years ago this summer.

I don’t think that anyone born after the flight of Apollo 11 truly can appreciate the excitement, the pride, the sheer elation of that moment. Certainly there have been many pioneering firsts in space in the years since, but nothing that even comes close to humans landing and walking around on the Sea of Tranquility. Untold thousands of youngsters like me were inspired by those bold first steps on the moon and, like the Saturn V rocket that bore the astronauts on a pillar of fire, they launched our careers into math, science and engineering.

Where is that spirit today? Who is inspired by Americans thumbing a ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to visit a space station going in circles around the Earth? We need a new goal, a new mission, a new commitment. It’s time for humans to go to Mars. Robots are nice, but they’re not humans. Who is the visionary leader who will take us there?

After Neil Armstrong quietly passed away Aug. 25 at age 82, his family requested that we all look up at the moon and give Neil a wink. So when that big, full blue moon rose on Aug. 31, I was watching — and I gave it a wink.

Thanks, Neil, for everything.

Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.

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