AT this hour fifty years ago on 20 July 1969 as a young boy in the tiny town of Opuwo, one of the leading space scientists of the world, Dr. Japie van Zyl was woken up by his mother to listen to a radio broadcast of the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the moon and Neil Armstrong saying the historic words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That inspirational moment guided Dr. Van Zyl to become a leader in humankind’s exploration of the solar system and outer space. He was one of thousands of Namibians that sat and listened on radios to the feat that mesmerised the world and he was influenced to showcase Namibian talent all over the world.
Today he is friends with Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon on that day 50 years ago.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) InSight Mission to mars launched at the beginning of May last year and it was the second mission to Earth’s neighbouring planet where Dr. Van Zyl, played a leading role. The first mission entailed the launch of the Curiosity Mission that landed two robot rovers on the surface of Mars in 2012.
On the eve of the launch of the InsSight Mission to Mars, President Hage Geingob called Dr. Van Zyl in the United States of America to wish him well with the extraordinary endeavour. At the time Dr. van Zyl informed Dr. Geingob that the InSight Mission will be the “first thorough check-up of Mars since the planet formed approximately 4, 5 billion years ago.”
Long before television or even the internet became a reality on the African continent, radio was the only medium that could reach a worldwide audience and at about 22:17 on the evening of 20 July 1969 Namibians like billions of other people from different cultures and nationalities listened how Armstrong announced that the “Eagle has landed.”
Space travel entered popular culture across the planet in the euphoria that followed one of humankind’s greatest achievements and even saw a few Namibians named after the two famous astronauts who first set foot on the moon.
The American effort to send astronauts to the moon had its origins in an appeal that United States President John F Kennedy made to a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
At the time, the United States was still trailing the Soviet Union in space developments, and Cold War-era America welcomed Kennedy’s bold proposal. In 1966, after five years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted the first unmanned Apollo mission, testing the structural integrity of the proposed launch vehicle and spacecraft combination.
Then, on January 27, 1967, tragedy struck at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, when a fire broke out during a manned launch-pad test of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rocket. Three astronauts were killed in the fire.
Despite the setback, NASA and its thousands of employees forged ahead, and in October 1968, Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, orbited Earth and successfully tested many of the sophisticated systems needed to conduct a moon journey and landing.
In December of the same year, Apollo 8 took three astronauts to the dark side of the moon and back, and in March 1969 Apollo 9 tested the lunar module for the first time while in Earth orbit. That May, the three astronauts of Apollo 10 took the first complete Apollo spacecraft around the moon in a dry run for the scheduled July landing mission.
On July 16, with the world watching, Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (1930-) aboard. Armstrong, a 38-year-old civilian research pilot, was the commander of the mission.
After travelling 384 000 kilometres (240,000 miles) in 76 hours, Apollo 11 entered into a lunar orbit on July 19. The next day the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the command module, where Collins remained. The Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 16: 17 east coast time or 23:17 Central African Time the craft touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, a now-famous message: “The Eagle has landed.”
Five hours ahead of the original schedule, Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module. As he made his way down the module’s ladder, a television camera attached to the craft recorded his progress and beamed the signal back to Earth, where hundreds of millions watched in great anticipation.
As Armstrong stepped off the ladder and planted his foot on the moon’s powdery surface, he spoke his famous quote, which he later contended was slightly garbled by his microphone and meant to be “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin joined him on the moon’s surface 19 minutes later, and together they took photographs of the terrain, planted a U.S. flag, ran a few simple scientific tests and spoke with President Richard Nixon via Houston.
The two men slept that night on the surface of the moon, and afterwards the Eagle began its ascent back to the command module. Among the items left on the surface of the moon was a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon—July 1969 A.D.—We came in peace for all mankind.”
Armstrong and Aldrin successfully docked and rejoined Collins, and on July 22 Apollo 11 began its journey home, safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.
There would be five more successful lunar landing missions. The last men to walk on the moon, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the Apollo 17 mission left the lunar surface on December 14, 1972.