There was a moment — the last such, it seems — when the world was as one.
It took place over a few hours on July 20, 1969. Fifty years ago on Saturday.
At least 600 million people gathered around television sets on every continent as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, leaving Michael Collins in the Columbia command module, guided their Eagle lunar module toward the surface of the moon.
The previous Christmas, Apollo 8 had carried humans from Earth into lunar orbit for the first time. In May, Apollo 10’s lunar module had descended to about 10 miles above the moon’s surface before pulling away. (Apollo 9, in between in March, tested the lunar module in Earth orbit.)
This was the big, frightening moment, the one the late President John F. Kennedy foresaw in 1961 in urging his nation to land on and return from the moon by decade’s end.
Armstrong flew the Eagle past a boulder field and a crater, seeking a level landing site. Mission Control and its planet held its breath.
The transmission arrived at 2:17 p.m. North Platte time: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
At 9:56 p.m., aided by a TV camera attached to Eagle’s exterior, Earthbound humans saw a sight never before seen: one of their own stepping onto another celestial body.
They heard Armstrong’s words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That was the moment.
Then, like all moments, it passed into history.
Five more U.S. lunar modules would land on the moon, carrying 10 more men to explore its secrets. Only Apollo 13, crippled by a service-module explosion, failed to touch the moon. It barely made it back to Earth.
The excellent 1995 movie “Apollo 13” ends with Tom Hanks, portraying mission commander Jim Lovell, asking the question Americans have asked since Apollo 17 splashed down on Dec. 19, 1972:
“I look up at the moon and wonder: When will we be going back? And who will that be?”
Several reasons explain why humanity hasn’t left Earth orbit these past 47 years and not quite seven months.
One was a jaded “been there, done that” reaction among the public: We beat the Russians, and we proved we could do it, so why keep spending billions to collect more moon rocks?
Congress, too, heard multiple outcries that it should spend those billions on down-to-Earth problems. With the near-tragedy of Apollo 13 as another excuse, Apollos 18 through 20 were canceled. (Apollos 14 through 17 were already paid for and were allowed to fly — virtually without incident, as it turned out.)
It’s not like a renewed deep-space program hasn’t been proposed and pursued. But setting up a permanent moon base and sending astronauts to Mars — intended in the 1970s but for those budget cuts — has fallen victim to “If you’re for it, we’re against it” partisanship.
NASA has kept space exploration and its astronauts (including Nebraskan Clay Anderson) in the public eye through Skylab, Viking and Voyager, the space shuttle missions, the International Space Station and the doughty recent Mars surface probes.
But now the children who watched the Apollo moon shots on TV are in their 50s and 60s. The astronauts who rode the mighty Saturn V, and the Mission Control experts who guided them, are passing on.
Will any of them get to see humans leave Earth orbit again? They will if Artemis, embraced by the current administration, is allowed to proceed.
The program envisions a return to the moon by 2024 — a necessary step for today’s astronauts and Mission Control to gain hands-on deep-space experience — followed in time by the manned Mars mission (or missions) envisioned for so long.
What would they find? And would it be worth finding?
The moon was a black-and-white “magnificent desolation,” as Buzz Aldrin put it after joining Armstrong outside the Eagle. Mars likely would be a red-tinged version, even if we find the microbial life forms recent probes suggest are or were there.
But we would learn more about the universe, our solar system and ourselves, just as we did during that first eight-year push to the moon.
And — especially if we enable the Russians and other nations to join in — Americans and all humans might once more taste the priceless gift reflected on the plaque left by Apollo 11 50 Julys ago:
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”