Image: Astronaut Neil Armstrong
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file
Neil Armstrong looks upward after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in November 2011. It's been 43 years since Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the first footprints on the moon, and today Armstrong contends that the "lunar vicinity" should still be the first stop for exploration beyond Earth orbit.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2012 12:14:11 PM ET 2012-07-19T16:14:11
Commentary

In a five-part series, NBC News' Jay Barbree lays out a vision of spaceflight in the 20-teens for the 2012 presidential candidates.

Forty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong moved slowly down the ladder.  He was in no hurry.  He would be stepping onto a small world that had never been touched by life.  A landscape where no leaf had ever drifted, no insect had ever scurried, where no blade of green had ever waved, where even the raging fury of a thermonuclear blast would sound no louder than a falling snowflake.

Across a vacuum-wide 240,000 miles, billions of eyes were transfixed on black-and-white televisions. They were watching this ghostly figure moving phantomlike, closer and closer, and then, three and a half feet above the moon's surface, jump off the ladder.  Neil Armstrong's boots hit the moon at 10:56 p.m. ET, July 20, 1969.

All motion stopped. He spoke: "That’s one small step for a man — one giant leap for mankind."

Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin stayed aboard Eagle to keep watch on all the lander's systems.  The LM was Aldrin’s responsibility, and as soon as it was safe for him to leave their lander, he came down the ladder and joined Armstrong.

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“Beautiful, beautiful!  Magnificent desolation,” Aldrin said with feeling. He stared at a sky that was the darkest of blacks. No blue. No green. No birds flying across an airless landscape.  There were many shades of gray and areas of utter black where rocks cast their shadows from an unfiltered sun, but no real color.  And there was the lack of gravity.  They seemed to weigh a little more than nothing.  In spite of their cumbersome spacesuits, both astronauts found moving about in the one-sixth gravity exhilarating and described the experience as floating.

They wanted to run and make leaps that would be impossible to do on Earth, where they would each weigh 360 pounds with their suits and life-support backpacks. On the moon, in its one-sixth gravity, they weighed only 60 pounds, but they still possessed body mass that restricted their ability to move. If they started to jog, the mass and velocity created kinetic energy, and stopping quickly was impossible.  They soon discovered that "bunny hops" in the suits worked well.

Neil had the camera and while Buzz went about setting up the experiments, he turned and looked for Earth, the true oasis of shifting colors in the solar system.  It appeared far larger from the moon than did the moon from Earth.  And it was many times brighter.  Sunlight made it so by splashing off the bright clouds and blue oceans.  It was hope.  It was the warmest port in this corner of the universe.

Twenty-one hours after they landed on the moon they fired Eagle’s ascent engine and headed home.

They were back on Earth three days later.

It has been 43 years since Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.  Ten more astronauts would follow him and Buzz to the lunar surface.

Slideshow: 'We choose to go to the moon'

Today, Neil Armstrong — first to walk on the moon, first to fly an emergency landing from space, a man with experience as a test pilot as well as an engineering professor — is concerned about America’s space program.

He simply thinks that NASA is going nowhere fast. He's worried that the space agency is outsourcing thousands of high-tech jobs to Russia, leaving no direct way for astronauts to go from the United States to the International Space Station. He fears that the space station could experience a catastrophic failure with little support from the country that assembled it in orbit.

Neil thinks we should not only fly our own rockets and spacecraft, but use those vehicles to return to the moon in affordable, incremental, cumulative steps. Here's his congressional testimony on the subject, updated in an email he sent me last week:

"Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore.

"The lunar vicinity is an exceptional location to learn about traveling to more distant places.   Largely removed from Earth gravity, and Earth’s magnetosphere, it provides many of the challenges of flying far from Earth.  But communication delays with Earth are less than two seconds, permitting Mission Control on Earth to play an important and timely role in flight operations.

"In the case of a severe emergency, such as Jim Lovell’s Apollo 13, Earth is only three days travel time away.  Learning how to fly to, and remain at, Earth-Moon Lagrangian points would be a superb precursor to flying to, and remaining at, the much farther distant Earth-Sun Lagrangian points.

"Flying to farther away destinations from lunar orbit or lunar Lagrangian points could have substantial advantages in flight time and/or propellant requirements as compared with departures from Earth orbit.

"Flying in the lunar vicinity would typically provide lower radiation exposures than those expected in interplanetary flight. The long communication delays to destinations beyond the moon mandate new techniques and procedures for spacecraft operations.  Mission Control cannot provide a Mars crew their normal helpful advice if the landing trajectory is nine minutes long but the time delay of the radar, communication and telemetry back to Earth is 19 minutes.

"Flight experience at lunar distance can provide valuable insights into practical solutions for handling such challenges.  I am persuaded that a return to the moon would be the most productive path to expanding the human presence in the solar system."

'Spaceflight in the 20-teens':

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News. Barbree wrote the New York Times best-seller "Moon Shot" with Alan Shepard, and was a finalist to be the first journalist in space. His space team received an Emmy for broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.  Barbree broke the news about the cause of the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident on NBC Nightly News and is a recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service. An updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Armstrong: ‘Apollo 11 crew is honored’

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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