The Eagle Has landed: the Moon Landing In 1969

This 20th of July will mark the 40th anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of mankind. That was the day that man first landed on the moon. I can still remember as if it were yesterday the running commentary carried by the All India Radio, probably from a Voice Of America feed, that told us that Neil Armstrong had indeed put foot on the moon and his now famous sentence (probably written for him by publicists back on earth). However whatever may be said it was indeed a giant leap for mankind.
I was just at the right age to be wonderstruck with this feat. Not for me the political questions of the space race, the triumph of the “free “world over the Communist Empire, or the parochial jubilation of the Americans over this stunning success. To me the whole of the second half of the sixties ( when I became old enough to understand the excitement of space travel, was a time when the boundaries of science and technology was pushed to its limit and there seemed to be no end to the miracles that science could bring. In fact, over the next 40 years space travel may have stayed in limbo, but the dazzling advances in communication, medical technology and food production has proved that scientists rule the earth.
I was not yet born when the Sputnik went into space, heralding the start of the space age. But in our childhood, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova the first man and woman in space were heroes beyond compare. It is a pity that today’s children have to choose between Spiderman and Shah Rukh Khan to find a hero. Every day there was a new achievement in those heady sixties, the first space walk, the first unmanned rocket to the moon, and then the first manned circuit of the moon and finally the landing of the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility one monsoon morning in July.
Even after this came the excitement of the ill fated Apollo 13 Mission when the world held its breath as the spacecraft fought its way back to earth after an explosion made it impossible for them to continue their original mission. I also remember with pride the exploits of Rakesh Sharma our own Indian astronaut(albeit on a Soviet spacecraft). When asked by our then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi what India looked like from space, he famously replied “Sara jahan se accha”
I can also remember the pictures in the now defunct Life magazine, the spacecraft and Neil Armstrong reflected on his visor. There was a picture of earthrise on the moon that is still burnt in my memory. I remember lining up to see a specimen of moon rock secure in its glass cover in an exhibition in the Maidan, if memory does not deceive me, it seemed quite within the bounds of possibility at that time that men would strike out on a voyage to the outer planets by the end of the century, a la 2001, a Space Odyssey.
Unfortunately the lure of space exploration faded fast. Once the Soviets had been defeated (!), the Americans lost appetite for funding these admittedly expensive projects. The Russians went broke soon after. However the story seems to be shifting east ward and I followed the Chandrayaan expedition avidly, and I still hope to live to see an Indian in space on an Indian spacecraft before the end of the second decade of this century.
Last Tuesday I read a news item that awoke this chain of memory. The NASA has revealed a prototype of its new rocket, the Orion which plans to send men on a moon mission in the 2020s and to Mars by the 2030s. It will be too late for me, but I hope that my grandchildren will be at an age to feel the same thrill that I did when man sets foot on a planet other than our own for the first time.


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