I was 6 years old on July 20, 1969, when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon—in black and white, of course—from my family’s Long Island living room. I was glued to the television. When the astronauts landed successfully, I remember my father quietly commenting that going to the moon was worth his tax dollars.
Watching Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take those first lunar steps touched me deeply. I remember standing in my front yard and staring up at the moon for the longest time, thinking, Wow, there are people up there, walking around. It seemed magical, and it changed my life.
This small step for a man drove me to study engineering at Columbia and then at MIT. And it eventually led me to become an astronaut—despite a fear of heights. I spent 18 years as a NASA astronaut flying two space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. I space-walked four times and saw the true beauty and fragility of our planet from 350 miles up.
I’ve also had the honor of meeting the three astronauts who flew on Apollo 11, my boyhood heroes: Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins. And I have seen many other space firsts, such as landing a rover on Mars, and significant accomplishments like the construction and operation of the International Space Station, knowledge I can now share with those who visit the Museum and attend its programs.
Apollo 11 is the greatest human achievement I have witnessed in my lifetime. What could top it? Nothing. Except perhaps the future discovery of life somewhere else in the universe. But that’s OK. There can only be one first time that we leave our planet and set foot somewhere else.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, those of us who witnessed it can reflect on the magic of that day in 1969, and those too young to recall it can learn about that historic walk at Tranquility Base and dream of future firsts.
Images: Courtesy of NASA and Mike Massimino