Moonwalkers, part one

No, this is not a Michael Jackson post.

Apollo11crew

If you were five years or older on this date 40 years ago, you remember.

You remember the tingle of excitement. You remember the wonder. You remember the grainy images of two men in bulky white pressure suits and their static-charged banter with their handlers a quarter of a million miles away. And you remember the words:

That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.

How could you not remember?

For the first time, human beings had set foot on the surface of another world.

Had you told me then, a third-grader basking in the glow of a cathode ray tube in a military-base townhouse in central Maine, that four decades later, the exclusive club opened on that amazing day by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have a grand total of twelve members, I would not have believed you.

I find it nearly impossible to believe even now.

And yet, it’s true. Two generations after humans first stood on the moon, only a dozen of our kind have ever done so. None have accomplished the feat since 1972 — 37 years ago.

I think that’s one of our greatest failures. As a nation, and as a species. We gave up on the incredible, and began settling for the mundane.

In an effort to inspire ourselves, let’s reflect for a moment on those bold pioneers who first touched the stars.

1. Neil A. Armstrong, mission commander, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

A former U.S. Navy aviator and experienced test pilot, Armstrong was one of only two civilians selected in 1962 for NASA’s second astronaut group, dubbed “the New Nine.” He commanded the Gemini 8 mission, and had been forced to abort that flight early due to a malfunctioning attitude thruster. Armstrong was chosen to lead the first lunar landing because he was considered NASA’s most capable pilot in critical emergency situations.

Beyond the moon: Armstrong left NASA shortly after Apollo 11. He has worked mostly as an engineering consultant and member of several corporate boards of directors. Armstrong served on the panel that investigated the explosion that prematurely terminated the Apollo 13 mission, and was vice-chairman of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. He is now 78 years old.

2. Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., lunar module pilot, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

The MIT-educated Aldrin was a U.S. Air Force jet fighter and test pilot before joining NASA’s third astronaut group. His first spaceflight came as the pilot of Gemini 12, during which he undertook three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities, or “spacewalks”) totaling 5.5 hours. Aldrin’s experience working outside the spacecraft led to his selection for the Apollo 11 team. Aldrin’s “Contact light… okay… engine stop” as Apollo 11‘s lunar module Eagle came to rest were the first words ever spoken from the moon’s surface.

Beyond the moon: Aldrin’s early post-NASA years were marked by struggles with alcoholism and depression. He wrote about these difficulties in his 1973 autobiography Return to Earth, and more recently in its follow-up, Magnificent Desolation, published earlier this year. Aldrin has been and remains an active advocate for space exploration, and speaks extensively on the subject. The Disney/Pixar animated character Buzz Lightyear is named after Aldrin.

3. Charles M. (Pete) Conrad, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

Pete Conrad overcame dyslexia to excel as a U.S. Navy aviator and flight instructor. At the time of his moon flight, Conrad was one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, making his third trip into space aboard Apollo 12. Previously, Conrad had served as pilot on Gemini 5, and as commander aboard Gemini 11. Among the shortest members of the astronaut corps, the iconoclastic Conrad famously wisecracked about his size as he took his first step from the lunar module: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Beyond the moon: Conrad was scheduled to return to the moon as commander of what would have been the Apollo 20 mission. The cancellation of the Apollo program found him instead as the initial commander of America’s first manned space station, Skylab. Conrad’s Skylab 2 crew (the Skylab 1 mission designation referred to the unmanned launch of the space station itself; the first launch of astronauts to the station was thus Skylab 2) set a space endurance record of 28 days. Leaving NASA, Conrad worked for McDonnell Douglas for 20 years. In 1996, he led a team that set the record for circumnavigating the globe in a Learjet. Conrad was killed in a motorcycle accident near his southern California home in 1999, at the age of 69.

4. Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

A member of NASA’s third astronaut group, Alan Bean was a former student of Pete Conrad’s at the Naval Flight Test School. The death of another astronaut in a motor vehicle accident opened an opportunity for Conrad to request Bean for his Apollo 12 crew.

Beyond the moon: Bean returned to space in 1973 as commander of the second Skylab crew, designated Skylab 3. After this record-setting mission, Bean served for several years as the civilian director of Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training. These days, he’s an accomplished artist who specializes in painting lunar landscapes. Bean also recently co-wrote, with fellow astronauts Owen Garriott and Joseph Kerwin, a book about the Skylab missions entitled Homesteading Space. Alan Bean lives is Houston and is 77.

5. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

America’s first man in space became its oldest man on the moon when 47-year-old Mercury veteran Alan Shepard made his long-delayed return to active duty as commander of Apollo 14. Shepard had been deemed unfit for space for several years following his initial flight due to Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder. He spent the intervening years as Chief of the Astronaut Office until his condition was surgically corrected.

Ironically, Shepard replaced another member of the Mercury Seven, L. Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, on the team when Cooper was bumped due to his lackadaisical training habits and adversarial relationship with the NASA brass. Avid golfer Shepard made history in another way during his moon expedition, when he volleyed off a couple of golf shots into the lunar night with a jury-rigged six-iron (he attached the head of a Wilson club to the handle of a NASA-issued shovel).

Beyond the moon: Shepard resumed his duties as chief astronaut after Apollo 14. He retired in 1974 and became a successful entrepreneur. Moon Shot, a book Shepard coauthored with journalists Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, formed the basis of a TV miniseries in 1994. Shepard died from leukemia in 1998, at the age of 74.

6. Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

Ed Mitchell became a moonwalker on his one and only spaceflight. A member of NASA’s fifth astronaut class in 1966, the former Naval research pilot and flight instructor held a doctorate in aeronautics from what is now Carnegie Mellon University.

Beyond the moon: Mitchell is probably best known today for his widely publicized views on the paranormal. He conducted ESP experiments during the Apollo 14 mission, and believes that UFOs may actually be alien spacecraft. He has stated in interviews that the infamous Roswell, New Mexico event in 1947 was the crash of one such craft, and that NASA, the Pentagon, and other U.S. government agencies are involved in shielding the general public from the truth about evidence of visitors from other planets. Mitchell, now age 78, lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.

These are the first six. We’ll take a look at the other half of the Moonwalkers Club in tomorrow’s post.

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