HOUSTON, Texas — Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the moment a camera mounted on the Lunar Module showed 38-year-old astronaut Neil Armstrong going down the ladder to take man’s first steps on the moon’s surface.
The event captivated a nation watching on television, including a 9-year-old girl sitting with her parents in their Ringgold County farm house near Beaconsfield.
Dr. Peggy Whitson, a United States record-setting astronaut, says it was the moment that shaped her life.
“At 9 years old, you don’t really have that perspective of the impact something like that has overall, but I remember thinking that was pretty awesome,” Whitson said Thursday. “I thought it was pretty amazing that we had someone stepping foot on another world.”
The inspiration of that moment propelled Whitson into her own status as one of the most celebrated NASA astronauts in the program’s history.
Whitson, now 59, and retired from NASA as an active astronaut, holds the U.S. space endurance record with 665 days in space. She was the first woman astronaut to hold NASA’s chief astronaut position, and has completed a total of 10 spacewalks over the course of her career. She commanded the International Space Station twice.
On May 16, Whitson received the 2019 women in Space Science award from the Adler Planetarium’s Women’s Board in recognition of her accomplishments in the United States’ space program and as a woman in the field of science and technology.
NASA astronauts were exclusively male until 1978, the year Whitson graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School. Whitson said that’s when her dream of becoming an astronaut became a realistic goal. Still, it took 10 years of sending applications before Whitson, who had a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University, was accepted by NASA.
Before Whitson saw that historic moon walk in July 1969, Walter Cunningham, born 87 years ago in Creston, was a lunar module pilot for the 11-day flight of Apollo 7 in October 1968. Cunningham, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Donn F. Eisele participated in transposition and docking exercises and a lunar orbit rendezvous with the Saturn IB launch vehicle. They provided the first live television transmission of an onboard crew.
Now, a half-century later, Whitson hopes the attention focused on this week’s anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 flight to the moon and back will serve as inspiration to a new generation of young Americans.
“I really appreciate the fact that people are paying so much attention to it,” said Whitson, who appeared on CBS This Morning on Monday, the 50th anniversary of the launch of astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Michael Collins and Armstrong into space for “the voyage man has always dreamed about,” according to then-CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite.
“Another reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary is to continue to explore what is possible,” Whitson said. “I think it is important that the United States be a leader in the world in development of technology and new ideas, which makes us better.”
It has been 47 years since the Apollo 17 crew of Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, landed on the lunar surface, which was the last manned space flight to the moon.
Now, there is renewed interest in reviving a program involving private partners with NASA to develop a lunar base by 2024. Besides providing the opportunity for further research and exploration of the moon, it could serve as station that could be a platform for crews to then go on to Mars, which is still an average of 140 million miles away, depending on the orbits of those planets.
“In order to have a sustainable program, which I would prefer, we are going to have to develop an infrastructure,” Whitson said. “A lunar station would allow easy access and a platform for commercial partners and other international partners to be involved. It would bring the cost down, by sharing it with other entities. You need that to make it happen.”
That’s because the current political climate regarding space travel is much different than the early 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy challenged America to be the first nation on the moon by the end of that decade. At its peak, prior to the first moon landing flight, NASA had 400,000 employees.
“In the Apollo era the space program got 5.5% of every (tax) dollar, and now it’s less than half a cent,” Whitson said. “At that time we had the money and political will to make it happen. Times are different now.”
Whitson is hopeful that development of the lunar gateway station could lead to further exploration around the moon, with experimental procedures such as harvesting hydrogen as fuel for a proposed later mission to Mars.
“Whether it’s a platform for robotics or human exploration of the moon, it would provide a chance to test technology for further expansion and be a springboard to get more and more people involved,” Whitson said. “If you think about some of the technology we have today, such as cell phones and other digital devices, much of that came from the way we pushed the limits of technology in the space program.”
While Whitson will no longer be going into space for NASA, after reaching the organization’s limit for exposure to radiation, she said she would welcome the opportunity to be involved in future private expeditions. Her previous missions to the International Space Station were 250 mile trips above the surface of the earth, compared to a 249,000 mile journey to the moon.
“I would absolutely love to walk on the moon or on Mars, either one!” Whitson said.
The danger of such missions has never deterred Whitson, even though parents Keith and Beth Whitson have not been spared worrisome moments. Peggy said the Space Station flights, while not absent of risk, were calculated as much safer than those early Apollo journeys to the moon.
She said early projections in Apollo testing in the 1960s projected only a 25 percent chance of a successful moon landing and safe return to the earth. Those odds improved over time, but never approached the relatively safe 1/180 chance of catastrophe attached to her own ISS missions.
The entire Apollo program nearly suffered a crippling blow in January 1967 when tragedy struck the Apollo 1 crew of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. A launch pad fire inside the capsule killed the crew.
In fact, CBS News prepared obituaries of the astronauts in advance of the Apollo 11 takeoff, just in case of tragedy, and President Richard Nixon prepared a condolence speech, in case it was needed in addressing the nation.
Whitson, the little girl who dreamed about going into space that July evening in 1969, never let fear become an obstacle once she was selected for space missions and space walks outside the International Space Station to conduct experiments and execute maintenance tasks.
“You have to accept that risk in advance of the flight,” Whitson said. “It’s part of the training, in essence. For me on launch day, I was just thrilled to have the opportunity.”
Now, with this renewed interest in space exploration as the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 flight, Whitson hopes many more Americans will receive those opportunities.
“Looking down on earth from the space station, or even more so for those standing on the lunar surface, it gives us the perspective of our planet and where we are in the universe among the billions of stars and galaxies like ours in the universe,” Whitson said.
As Armstrong said in a CBS interview after walking on the moon, space exploration involves more than just collecting rocks and soil samples.
“This is the beginning of a new era, an era where man begins to understand the universe around him,” Armstrong said.