Apollo 11’s greatest contribution to humanity: infinite inspiration

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Of all the major milestones in the continuum of human advancement — mastering fire, inventing the wheel, discovering electricity, harnessing atomic energy, creating the Internet — another that comes to the top of list happened nearly 50 years ago, when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and placed his heavily booted foot on the surface of the Moon.

The culmination of almost a decade of fierce effort by some of America’s greatest scientific minds, the moon landing fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious goal for the nation and inspired generations to re-think what’s possible.

“We choose to go to the Moon and do other things,” President Kennedy announced in 1961, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . .”

President Kennedy understood that the American spirit responds to challenge with vitality, ingenuity and optimism— qualities that fueled America’s space program from the start and continue to drive it forward today.

Even though I was only a toddler on July 20, 1969, I feel a great affinity with the men and women who made the vision a reality, some of whom were my colleagues at Collins Aerospace and its predecessors. These employees were responsible for three systems on the mission:

  • The Apollo space suit life support system, which pressurized the suit, provided oxygen, removed carbon dioxide, provided cooling and controlled humidity.
  • The Lunar Module’s environmental control system, providing a life-sustaining atmosphere onboard the spacecraft.
  • The vital communications link between the astronauts and the Earth, ensuring Neil Armstrong’s first steps and now-famous words—“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”—were clearly captured, beamed back to Earth and broadcast around the world.

Failure of any one of these systems would have been disastrous to the mission and devastating to the U.S. space program and these people knew it. No pressure, right? All this at a time when “computing” meant get out your paper, pencil and slide rule. Imagine their elation when everything worked flawlessly. They nailed it, as did thousands of others who contributed to the mission, inspiring future generations to continue the journey of space exploration.

I was one of the inspired. Growing up, I was captivated by the space shuttle program and the idea that a vehicle could take off, fly into space, then come back, land on Earth like an aircraft, and be re-used. I was fascinated by what it would take to design and build something like that and by the people who could fly and operate it. Even though my dream of being an astronaut wasn’t realized, I continued to pursue a career in aerospace engineering, hoping to become part of the magic of space.

To me, the allure of a career in space was two-fold: First, simple curiosity—I wanted to learn as much as I could about the universe, our solar system, and the Earth’s place in it; and, second, I was drawn to the challenge of the complexity of the problems that need to be solved in space. As part of the Collins Aerospace team, I got my wish—and then some. We are constantly learning and solving problems in the space environment every day, from helping to maintain the International Space Station to protecting astronauts to keeping satellites in orbit. And because everything about space is new and different and difficult, our work drives innovation and technology advancement.

Now, with NASA’s charge to return to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program (Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology), we have another set of exciting challenges ahead. The plan calls not just for revisiting the Moon—this time at the south pole and with a female astronaut—but also establishing a permanent presence there, from which we can set our sights on the ultimate goal: sending humans to Mars. Talk about a giant leap!

We have just over four years to invent, reinvent or refine space transportation, habitation modules, exploration vehicles, life support systems, spacesuits, even the food astronauts will eat. We have made great progress on all these vital components of the journey, but there is much more work to be done to ensure the safety of the astronauts and the success of the mission.

While it’s exhilarating to be part of all this, what inspires and excites me even more is envisioning what my children and grandchildren will see and experience in their lifetimes. Will they see the first humans reach Mars? Will they learn if life exists beyond Earth? Will they come to understand other mysteries of the universe? Will they vacation at a lunar outpost? I hope so!

Phil Jasper is president of Collins Aerospace Mission Systems.

Just as we have built on the foundation provided by the Apollo astronauts, the next generation will build on our achievements, and future generations on theirs. The forward momentum set in motion by those first, fearless space pioneers will build upon itself, continuously adding to our knowledge and understanding of the vast final frontier.

Hundreds of years from now, when humans are living on the Moon and Mars and any other habitable place in our solar system, they will look back in awe at the people who took those first steps into a world beyond Earth. And be just as inspired as we are.

Thank you, Apollo 11, and happy 50th anniversary.