Fifty years ago next Tuesday, at about 9:30 a.m., three astronauts sitting atop a rocket the size of a Navy destroyer packing 7.5 million pounds of thrust took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Roughly a million people had gathered on the ground to watch this historic event, including half of Congress. These three astronauts, as one newspaper back then put it, carried with them “the hopes of the world.”
The year was 1969, the year before I was born. The astronauts were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The mission was Apollo 11. Armstrong and Aldrin would go on to make history a little more than 100 hours later when, with more than a third of Earth watching or listening live, they became the first humans to set foot on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission went on to make history again a little less than 100 hours after this as the first to not only put men on the moon but to bring them home as well. Although President Kennedy didn’t live to see it, the bold goal he set eight years earlier had been met.
To steal a line from the flight director of that mission, we had shown that, “What America will dare, America will do.”
Today, we rightfully celebrate the momentous occasion that is the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. As President Nixon said in a phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin while they were still on the moon, because of what they had done, “the heavens have become a part of man’s world.” Not only did we succeed in putting men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth but we’ve now gone on to put robotic rovers on distant planets and launch celestial observatories into orbit that can literally peer into the beginnings of the universe and time itself. We’ve established and sustained a human presence in low-Earth orbit.
While it’s tempting to focus only on the historic achievements that were Apollo 11, the moon landing and entire Apollo Program didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was the result of visionary leadership, national unity and old-fashioned American tenacity.
The success of Apollo 11 and our national space program was also due in large part to the tireless contributions of countless women who were working behind the scenes and whose stories have only recently become familiar. Dr. Christine Darden, a mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer, was one of the famed “human computers” at NASA. Without her work, without the work of other such “computers,” many of them African-American women, we never could have sent astronauts into space, let alone brought them home safely. Unfortunately, these human computers’ contributions were hidden from public view. They remained hidden for far too long, relegated to the background.
As we look at the space landscape today, we see it’s far different from the landscape of 1969. America and the Soviet Union are no longer the only players in space. Government space programs are no longer the only game in town. And our technological capabilities, both in terms of our ability to plan missions and how long these missions are have changed dramatically.
What do the next 50 years in space exploration look like and what should we seek to accomplish? We need a bold vision — a vision that sees the commercial space industry thriving. I have long said the first trillionaire will be made in space.
In 50 years, we will have gone back to the moon. Indeed, the United States will return to the moon as part of the Artemis program. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo. And this time when we return to the moon, NASA has committed that we will land the first woman on the moon, an American astronaut. And on behalf of my two young daughters, let me say, thank you and it’s about time. From there, we’ll move toward having a more permanent presence on the moon and then ultimately to Mars.
Just a couple of years ago I was proud to author the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act signed into law. Every member of Congress in the House and Senate in both parties united to say the objective of space exploration for NASA is to go to the red planet and land on Mars — and that the first boot to set foot on the surface of Mars will be that of an American astronaut. America continues to lead the world in exploring space and exploring the great frontiers before us.