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Decades later, Neil Armstrong still chooses to go to the moon

It's been 43 years since America first went to the moon, but Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong still thinks the lunar surface is the best first stop for exploration beyond Earth orbit. Fourth of five commentaries by NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: Astronaut Neil Armstrong
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.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

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.

“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.

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 published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from , , ,   and .