“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
- John F. Kennedy, American President
We walk different roads back to that momentous event 50 years ago. When we arrive there -- July 20, 1969 — we watch in curious awe as Neil Armstrong takes that first step on another world. We wonder, ponder. What does it mean -- to me, to humanity?
Those of us on the younger side of 50 can access Apollo 11 via parents, grandparents, or “seasoned” friends. Others, who have experienced a few more orbits around the Sun, recall these Moon voyages more personally. We may recall exactly where we were, what we were doing, and even how it affected us.
For myself, I barely can summon memories of the first Moon walk. Searching my hazy past, I am watching a small black-and-white TV with my family. With an eight-year-old’s limited vision, I naively ask, “Why is the picture so fuzzy?” Obviously, my fascination and curiosity with space and astronomy came a little later in life.
With three weeks to go before the actual Apollo 11 anniversary, I am amazed at all the events, movies, and books that are already reviving and celebrating this monumental Moon mission. None of the other big space anniversaries made much of a splash.
Back on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union started the space race when they rocketed Sputnik in low Earth orbit. This seminal achievement changed everything. It affected America immensely and eventually led to Apollo 11. Still, 50 years later in 2007, there was hardly any attention to this historic anniversary. Sure, there were articles and a few books published, but unfortunately, not much talk. We presented a special program at the Planetarium that surprisingly drew fewer people than anticipated.
Even American successes -- like Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961, John Glenn’s first orbit in 1962, and Ed White’s first space walk in 1965 -- did not gather much anniversary notice across the nation. Space exploration enthusiasts noticed of course. Again, articles were written and read about these and other triumphs, but the conversation quickly waned.
Apollo 11 is notably different, even this far in advance of the anniversary. It is the culmination, the pinnacle of amazing fortitude and dedication on a grand scale. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Michael Collins guided them back home. But over 400,000 people all across America worked together to make Apollo one of the greatest moments in human history. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite noted, "I think that 500 years from now, the young people that are living on space stations and space cities and perhaps on the orbs themselves out there ... they will be recognizing the most important feat of all time.”
With such a great triumph came great expectations. Thomas Paine, the head of NASA in 1969, predicted we would send 12 humans to a much further space location, Mars, in 1983, and return them safely back to the Earth in 1985 after 80 days exploring the rocky surface. That long-ago prediction seems foolhardy from today’s status.
NASA has landed a fleet of robots on the red planet and still has plans to make human footprints there. Current expectations call for that giant leap to occur sometime in the mid-2030s. Cautious experts push that date out a decade or two.
As we celebrate and reflect upon Apollo 11 this July, we marvel most at the never-before-seen blue images of our home planet. These unexpected, exquisite images helped set the stage for the start of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 — just nine months after we walked on the Moon.
Southern Sky: Special & Strange
The jewels of the southern sky are impressive. To gaze up and see the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, or the Magellanic Clouds is a grand experience. I have been fortunate to see it a few times, and will make another venture south very soon for the July 2 total solar eclipse.
Many southern stars and constellations can be unfamiliar, even strange. Musca the Fly and Pavo the Peacock are a few of the unique star patterns. Regardless, they are all a treasure to locate and wondrous to behold.
An amusing human twist (literally) occurs to northern stargazers when they venture south of the equator: To see sky objects like they do back in the north, people unwittingly contort their bodies and bend their heads sideways. They are trying to make themselves upside-down without actually standing on their heads. Gravity tells them otherwise, but when people visit the opposite hemisphere — north or south — they are upside-down compared to back home.
The above illustration explains this stargazing strangeness. People see a different Moon depending on if they are north or south of the equator. Certain constellations will look upside-down, too.
You also might notice the southern hemisphere is at the top of the picture. Nothing is wrong with this Earth image -- there's no up or down when you see Earth from space!
One more peculiar sky sight occurs when northerners go south of the equator. The Sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. But the Sun moves to a person’s left. Meaning after the Sun rises, it gets higher in the northern sky. Back home, northerners see the Sun move to the right and rise higher in the southern sky.
Sagittarius Chases the Scorpion
Chasing the Scorpion, night after night, is the Greek centaur Sagittarius, another prominent summer zodiac constellation. Half man and half horse, Sagittarius is also known as the archer. In ancient lore, Sagittarius’ arrow is aimed at the Scorpion — the nemesis of the mighty hunter Orion, who is best seen in the winter sky. People often call the stars of Sagittarius the “teapot.”
Sagittarius has seven stars that can be seen in most city night skies. The brightest is Kaus Australis, meaning the southern part of the archer’s bow, can also be located at the bottom of the teapot’s spout. This star is also known as Epsilon Sagittarii, a hot blue giant star about 144 light years away.
The second brightest star in Sagittarius is Nunki, located in the upper handle of the teapot. The name, of Babylonian origin, means something unknown, though lately it has been thought to refer to the name of an ancient board game. Nunki is another brilliant blue giant star at 225 light years from Earth. If Nunki replaced the Sun in our sky, it would shine 630 times brighter and incinerate the Earth.
Mars and Mercury are still within reach of discerning eyes in early July. Your best shot will be July 3-4 with a young crescent Moon showing you the way. You may have some competition with local fireworks in spotting the “M&M” planets.
Jupiter is now well up in the southeast sky after sunset. Though it looks like Jupiter is located in Scorpius, the planet is actually within the borders of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent-bearer. Look for the Moon shining nearby on July 12-13.
July Star Map
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