Apollo 11: Fifty years of man’s terrestrial romance with space, what next (1)? By Professor MK Othman



Man is inexplicably the most adventurous specie in the midst of the living things.  Among men, there are men; some are die-hard audacious, some are chickenhearted while the rest are in-between. President John F. Kennedy of the United State of America was one of the most progressive and visionary World leaders of the 20th century. 

Precisely, on the 25th day of May, 1961, President Kennedy set a monumental goal, the first in the history of mankind, to transport and land man on the surface of the Earth’s lunar, the only known moon to the planet. He addressed the US Congress with a clear message to the rest of the World: “I believe that this nation (USA) should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” After this statement, the goal was achieved eight years after with a staggering expenditure of $25.4 billion dollars for landing man on the moon and back to the Earth safely and heartily.

These billions of US Dollars were estimated to be the total cost of the Apollo program. The whole World was amazed, some felt it was a crazy idea or shear madness, and some were indifferent while several others in Africa were oblivion to the historic event as they were sternly confronted with challenges of post independent era.

In Nigeria, despite a bloody civil war at the period, there was massive awareness of the Apollo 11 mission in the north, which propelled the legendary Hausa Singer, Alhaji Mamman Shata of blessed memory to sing “Kumbo Apollo 11”. Another famous Singer of blessed memory Mamman Gawo of Niger republic equally sang the Apollo 11 in Hausa language. While Shata explicitly commended the giant effort of the USA for the mission, describing the speed of Apollo 11 as fast as that of lightening (sauri kamar walkiya), Gawo warned America to “let the sleeping dog lie to avoid its madness (catastrophe) ” (kar kuje ku nemo wata rigima). Those two songs in Hausa language were so eloquent and educative to some of us even as teenagers making the Apollo 11 mission the most distinctly understood subject at the time. Thanks to those eminent and brilliant singers: Shata and Gawo of Nigeria and Niger republics.

From the day President Kennedy promised the World of America’s plan on planetary mission to the moon, American scientists in NASA assiduously worked not only to realize the American dream but to meet the deadline set by their coveted president.

President Kennedy made the famous pledge after his inspiration by Alan Sheppard space mission in that same year 1961. Alan Sheppard was the first American ever to fly in space. Sheppard was one of the original seven astronauts chosen by NASA for its Mercury program. He became the first American in space on 5th May 1961, when he went aloft in the Freedom 7 capsule for a 15-minute sub-orbital flight.

The Sheppard mission convinced Kennedy that America could move to the next level ahead of other contending countries in space mission especially Russia, and thus, promised the World what then seemed to be “mission impossible”. Thus, the primary objective of Apollo 11 was to complete a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy, perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth.

Additional objectives to the mission included scientific exploration of the lunar module crew; deployment of a television camera to transmit signals to the Earth; and deployment of a solar wind composition experiment and seismic experiment package. Consequently, the two astronauts of the mission were to gather samples of lunar-surface materials for return to Earth. They were also to extensively photograph the lunar terrain, the deployed scientific equipment, the Lunar Module spacecraft, and they were, both to use still and motion picture cameras as much as possible.

On July 16, at precisely 13:32 GMT, a Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida speedily launched Apollo 11. It was the fifth crewed mission of NASA’s Apollo program at the time of the launching. The spacecraft (Apollo 11) traveled a distance of 384,000 kilometers in 76 hours before it entered into a lunar orbit on July 19.The next day, July 20 at 1:46 p.m. the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility in Site 2 at 0 degrees, 41 minutes, 15 seconds north latitude and 23 degrees, 26 minutes east longitude on the moon surface.

This was about seven kilometers away from the predicted or designed touchdown point and occurred almost one-and-a-half minutes earlier than scheduled time. After the landing, it was almost four hours later that Armstrong emerged from the Eagle and deployed the TV camera for the transmission of the event to Earth.

On that date, July 20th, 1969, there was massive anxiety and fear of whether the mission was to be successful or not, what could be the repercussion (if any) or benefits to mankind from an “extra length” in man’s effort at planetary expedition, (kada ku tono wata rigima) etc. An estimated 650 million people across the globe in over 73 countries were glued to their fuzzy television sets watching Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice announced: “the Eagle has landed”.

Minutes later, he was seen gently leaping, announcing the event as he took each step “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. Armstrong was the first person to set his feet on the moon’s surface with footprints. The first footprints put on the moon will probably remain for a long time, perhaps, almost as long as the moon lasts in planetary world.

This is because Lunar environment is not similar to our environment on Earth, there is no erosion by wind or water on the moon because it has no atmosphere and all the water on the surface is frozen as ice and thus, any mark made on the moon surface is likely to remain forever.

The events of 20th and 21st July 1969 when moon received her first human visit of three American men with their craft are chronicled serially: at about 109 hours, 42 minutes after launch, Armstrong stepped onto the moon. About 20 minutes later, Aldrin followed him. The camera was then positioned on a tripod about 30 feet from the Lunar Module. Half an hour later, President Nixon spoke by telephone link with the astronauts. After Aldrin had spent one hour, 33 minutes on the surface, he re-entered the Lunar Module, followed 41 minutes later by Armstrong.

The entire Extravehicular Activity (EVA) duration lasted more than two-and-a-half hours, ending at 111 hours, 39 minutes into the mission. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface and collected 21.5 kg of lunar material to bring back to the Earth. Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the command module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the Moon’s surface.

During their stay on the moon, they did several activities including hoisting of American flag, photographing and collection of soil samples and rocks among other historical events. However, the climax was the telephone conversion with President Nixon who became American President after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. That telephone conversation was so historic and astonishing to the entire world. President Nixon described it as “the most historic phone call ever made from the White House”.

Nixon:Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Armstrong: “Thank you, Mr. President. It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but also men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future. It’s an honor for us to be able to participate here today.”

Read also: Apollo 11: 50 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space, what next? II, by Professor MK Othman

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.


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