Monday, July 20, 2009

To the Moon

And that's the way it was...


On July 20, 1969, at 10:18 p.m. Israel time - 40 years ago today - Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.

President Barack Obama will have to weigh the advice of a panel of experts due to report in August and decide whether to spend an estimated $100 billion so that Americans can return to the moon on the 50th anniversary of the first landing.

Lunar colonies could serve as a stepping-stone for an eventual manned mission to Mars. From the moon, astronauts might travel into deep space to the asteroid Apophis, when it passes near Earth in 2021. Later they might reach Mars' moon, Phobos. Some experts hope that humans could journey to Mars as soon as 2031.

Or should space exploration be relegated to cheaper robotic proxies? It's a tough decision.

America finds itself $11 trillion dollars in debt. This year's budget deficit alone is $482 billion. With a wobbly economy, rising unemployment, wars in Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq, and millions of Americans without health insurance, can Obama afford to be extravagant on space?

THE NIGHT of that moon landing, Americans were mesmerized by a grainy black-and-white simulation of the Eagle approaching the moon. Millions were tuned to CBS, where Walter Cronkite was anchoring coverage of the descent to the lunar surface. Mission control called off the numbers until there were none left - and Cronkite exclaimed: "Man on the Moon!"

A moment later came word from the astronauts: "Houston, Tranquility base here; the eagle has landed."

Cronkite, who died on Friday at 92, recalled that despite years of preparation, he was nearly speechless with joy. On earth, the War in Vietnam was taking its toll; campus unrest and racial tension roiled. But all that was placed in abeyance as eyes turned heavenward - via the miracle of television - to see Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, with the words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

This week, the Endeavour space shuttle with its seven-member crew docked with the International Space Station, a structure now as large as a four-bedroom house, presently home to 12 men and a woman - seven Americans, two Russians and two Canadians. When this mission is over, the station will contain an "outdoor" observatory. Only seven missions remain before the shuttle fleet is retired, NASA says.

ISRAELIS COULD not view the live telecast of the first moon landing - our technology was not that advanced. Israel Radio instead broadcast the news in real time, translating each milestone into Hebrew.

The country tried to put aside its reality to share in the excitement. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the US Cultural Center was screening NASA films every 30 minutes.

Israel's victory in the Six Day War notwithstanding, a war of attrition raged on with Egypt. And as Michael Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin were orbiting the moon, the IAF shot down five Egyptian planes over Suez. Around the time the Eagle rejoined Columbia in orbit, Jordanian artillery was shelling Beit She'an.

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Nissan, prayed that the moon walk would not deepen man's hubris, but that instead people would better appreciate the act of Creation.

Both Egypt and Jordan devoted more news coverage to the moon landing than to their war against Israel; not so Syria. Palestinian Arab terrorism continued unabated: an attack in Hebron on Israelis making a pilgrimage to the Cave of the Machpelah; the murder of a man waiting for a bus in Tel Aviv by an exploding parcel.

As the astronauts splashed down safely, the IAF downed seven more Egyptian planes after 40 enemy aircraft crossed the Suez Canal. In Haifa's outdoor market, three bombs planted in watermelons detonated, injuring shoppers.

LOOKING back, it is heartening that Israel is now at peace with Egypt and Jordan, though endlessly disquieting that Palestinian intransigence has stalemated reconciliation on that front.

The exploration of space, meanwhile, is a constant reminder that all of us are denizens of the third planet from the sun, and part of something far bigger than meets the eye.

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