Apollo 11 moon landing’s 50th anniversary brings tributes, questions … and liftoff!


A Saturn V rocket is projected on the Washington Monument during a 17-minute multimedia presentation in the nation’s capital celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s moonwalkers took one giant leap for humanity, luminaries including President Donald Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — paid tribute to the achievement and looked forward to the future of spaceflight.

Today’s observances were about more than memories: There were also fresh questions about where that future might lead — and a Russian rocket launch that resonated with references to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

The marquee observance on today’s anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, came at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Vice President Mike Pence invoked the legacy of the Apollo program and hailed NASA’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon once again by 2024.

The new initiative — which has been dubbed Artemis, in honor of Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology — aims to send “the next man and the first woman” to the lunar surface and demonstrate America’s continuing primacy in space, Pence said.

He announced the completion of the Orion deep-space capsule for the Artemis 1 mission, which is due to send the uncrewed craft around the moon and back in the 2020-2021 time frame.

The vice president was accompanied on his Florida visit by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and the family of Neil Armstrong, the mission’s late commander. Armstrong’s first words after stepping foot on lunar soil in 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — were evoked repeatedly during the day.

Pence scoffed at the idea that space heroism was an outdated concept. “We honor these men today, and America will always honor our Apollo astronauts,” Pence said. “They were heroes all.”

Just the day before, the Apollo entourage made a D.C. stopover at the White House for an Oval Office meeting with the president.

That photo opportunity wasn’t without controversy: Trump seemed to question the rationale for sending astronauts to the moon.

“To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say,” Trump said. “Any way of going directly without landing on the moon? Is that a possibility?”

“Yes,” said Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins, who has advocated such missions in preference to a prolonged lunar campaign.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tried to turn the focus back to the moon.

“The challenge is, Earth and Mars are only on the same side of the sun once every 26 months,” he explained. “So we have to be prepared to stay on Mars for long periods of time. We prove that out on the moon, and then we go to Mars.”

Trump continued to ask Collins about the “Mars Direct” scenario, however. The episode echoed a Twitter tiff that popped up last month, when Trump tweeted that “NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon” but focus on Mars instead.

In the months and years ahead, the debate over destinations may well figure in how NASA adjusts its vision for building a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway, and how much effort is devoted to promoting a sustainable human presence on the moon. Price tags are also likely to figure in the debate: Bridenstine has estimated that putting the first two astronauts on the lunar surface may require $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years.

NASA isn’t the only entity paying the bill: International partners and commercial space ventures are also contributing to the effort.

During the Oval Office photo op, Trump referred to the billions of dollars that are being spent by the likes of Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

“Private guys, wealthy guys, are spending a lot of money with you right now,” he told Bridenstine. “A lot. I assume they are using the facilities, they’re leasing the facilities, they’re paying money to set off their rockets. You can charge them a lot. They have so much, they don’t know what to do with it. And they like rockets. Thank God I don’t like rockets that much. I like it — I like it the way we’re doing it.”

“Yes, sir,” Bridenstine said.

NASA isn’t exactly charging Bezos and Musk for launches. In fact, NASA contracts account for a significant portion of SpaceX’s revenues. But the billionaires are paying their own way when it comes to upgrading launch facilities and developing new types of rockets.

Bezos, for example, says he’s spending $1 billion a year on his Blue Origin space venture. And he’s keen to have Blue Origin, its New Glenn rocket and its Blue Moon lander play roles in the Artemis program to send astronauts to the moon.

“It’s time to go back to the moon — this time to stay,” Bezos has said, so often that the catchphrase has been picked up by Bridenstine and Pence.

Today, Bezos was among those paying tribute to NASA and the Apollo astronauts on Instagram. “We stand on their shoulders,” Bezos wrote:

Perhaps the most fitting observance of the Apollo 11 anniversary came in the form of today’s launch of an international crew to the International Space Station — which took place at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the epicenter of the Soviet side of the space race.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano lifted off on time at 9:28 p.m. local time (9:28 a.m. PT) atop a Soyuz rocket, and are due to arrive at the station after a six-hour trip.

“Fifty years after a small step for man, the Soyuz rocket and its multinational crew take a giant leap off the launch pad,” NASA launch commentator Rob Navias said as the rocket ascended.

In advance of the launch, the director general of the Russian space agency, Dmitri Rogozin, paid tribute to Apollo 11 as well.

“Fifty years ago Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins put themselves into the world’s space exploration history books. They joined the crew of the great pioneers, who dared to set off on a journey to the unknown in order to push the boundaries of the reachable world for the humanity,” Rogozin said in a statement.

“I do believe that our common goal is to be worthy of our great predecessors, to enrich their heritage and overcome all the difficulties on the Earth in order to continue the expansion of the humanity into space,” he said. “As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky put it, ‘The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever!’ ”

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