Many of us remember the fascination of watching the Apollo 11 mission on black and white TV screens, witnessing the landing of a U.S. spacecraft on the moon and hearing astronaut Neil Armstrong declare ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ as he stepped on to the moon’s surface July 20, 1969.
As the 50th anniversary of that achievement approaches, SooToday spoke with three notable local figures and asked them to share their memories of the historic space mission.
Who better to start off with than the Sault’s own Dr. Roberta Bondar, who became Canada’s first female astronaut, conducting scientific experiments as a member of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s crew on an eight-day mission in January 1992.
In July 1969, Bondar had completed her undergraduate degree in agriculture and zoology at the University of Guelph, beginning her masters of science in pathology at the University of Western Ontario (she would later go on to earn doctorates in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and medicine from McMaster University).
“I was in the Sault. I was at home watching it on an old black and white television in the dining room of our house,” Bondar recalled.
“I remember it being a sunny day and being on the back deck, saying to my father ‘they’re landing on the moon.’ It was nice to be able to share it with my Dad because my Mom was taking summer courses with my sister in Toronto at the time.”
Bondar said she never doubted she too would one day be in space.
“It wasn’t a wild dream come true (when she went into space on board the Space Shuttle Discovery).”
“It (the 1969 moon landing) was exciting because it was part of what I wanted to do. It (her 1992 space mission) was something I was building up to. I had this confidence that science and technology would be blind to gender and race, and therefore I would have equal opportunity,” Bondar said.
“Everybody on the planet who had any kind of access to communication systems would’ve felt connected in some way (by seeing fellow humans on the moon’s surface), but I felt I had a special link to the astronauts. I felt, for me, it was a ‘yes,’ an affirmation of the technology and affirmation of what could be there for me in the future.”
“Human beings going into space was a fulfillment of some of those childhood things I had read about, being interested in science fiction as a child, it was that kind of feeling of success. I said that we were going to be able to do these things in my lifetime and that I would be a part of it,” Bondar said.
In July 1969, Ron Common, who has served as Sault College president since 2007, was a private pilot and a university student in Winnipeg.
“I was at Lake of the Woods at a summer cottage and I only agreed to go to the cottage if I knew they had television and were connected because I wanted to watch the lunar landing,” Common said.
“My Dad was in the air force, so I grew up surrounded by military airplanes. As a pilot, I was fascinated by all things aviation-related, especially space travel,” said Common, an Alberta native.
“I was awestruck at the accomplishment because this moon landing occurred only 66 years after the Wright brothers first flight. This was an astounding advancement in aviation in such a short time.”
“When Armstrong stepped on to the moon, I thought to myself ‘we came this far in 66 years, where will we be in the next 66 years?’” Common said.
“I had such high expectations. I felt for sure in the next 66 years we will have definitely travelled to another planet, but here it is 50 years later and we have not advanced at the rate I expected as I looked to the future, but this to me was an astounding accomplishment.”
“I also remember being extremely anxious because this was a massively dangerous enterprise, so many things could’ve gone wrong,” Common said.
Previously, a cabin fire during an Apollo 1 launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Jan. 27, 1967 killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, the command module destroyed.
“I was anxious throughout the whole mission, including the re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, because there’s such a narrow window on the angle of re-entry, and they had to nail that or they would’ve bounced off,” Common said.
“The most exciting thing about the moon landing for me was hearing the astronauts conversations as the Eagle was descending and hearing them say, as they got closer to the moon’s surface, that the dust was kicking up, and I was thinking ‘my God, the lunar dust is kicking up as they’re trying to find a place to put this down.’”
“Then, hearing the words ‘the Eagle has landed,’ that was the most exciting thing I heard,” Common said.
Steve Butland, former Sault mayor, city councillor and Sault MP, was a schoolteacher upgrading his skills at Laurentian University in July 1969.
“This was one of those memorable moments for me and so many other people, along with the Canada-Russia 1972 hockey series, the John Kennedy assassination, the Roberta Bondar flight, but reflecting on the moon mission, it was one of those moments when the world stood still.”
“There were millions of people viewing it around the world. We were watching it in the common room at Laurentian and I do remember thinking ‘oh my gosh, is this really happening?’”
That statement ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ you remember it, it’s emblazoned in our minds,” Butland said.
Over the years, many political leaders and scientists have spoken of astronauts one day returning to the moon, on a temporary mission or establishing a moon base, and at some point, travelling to Mars.
Should humans return to the moon? Did our interview subjects think we will do so one day?
Interestingly, Bondar said “we haven’t really been to the moon.”
“We’ve landed on the moon and explored a couple of really small areas.”
And, for Bondar, it’s a case of safety first before we do anything more.
“We’re really naive if we think we understand everything and go past the moon without trying to develop some technology that can get us back to the planet should we have some problems.”
“I think there’s a lot of technology we haven’t worked on. There are a lot of things to work on in terms of protecting human beings in space flight. There are also questions about the frailty of human physiology (by going into space),” Bondar said.
“I do believe in robotic systems in terms of lunar exploration. Other countries outside the United States are heavily involved now in lunar exploration, the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese and the European Space Agency are trying to learn more about the moon.”
“Hopefully the newer Canadian astronauts will be on the moon. I would have loved to have seen us have moon bases by now because there’s so much to learn and study, especially when we’re trying to develop technologies to explore Mars,” Bondar said.
“I want the people of Sault Ste. Marie to know...we dream of a better life, a better human race, and I think space provides us with those kinds of energetic views, and there’s no better place than standing on the shores of Lake Superior, our beautiful, biggest lake in the world and looking up into that night sky and being excited about space.”
“We’ll definitely get back to the moon,” Common said.
“There are all of these private space companies which are looking at going to the moon, and there’s wide differences of opinion, but some people are now saying we should get to Mars within 10 years. It’s a costly enterprise and people are putting money elsewhere, but I do think we’ll get back to the moon.”
“It’s in our DNA to explore. First we left Europe and explored North America. Then we had to get into flight, it was in our DNA to push the boundaries and get into the air, then leave earth and get into space and it’s in our DNA to continue exploring,” Common said.
Butland said "being a social democrat, I would say the money that would be spent on further moon missions would probably be better spent looking after our own folk on earth, but I think it’s naturally human to say ‘hey, we did this and it’s out there to explore. The awe of the universe, it’s natural for men and women to pursue exploration of it."
Noting the complexity of the universe, Butland, who served as a teacher, vice principal and principal at the elementary school level within the Sault's Roman Catholic Separate School Board (now known as the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board), said “there is good reason to believe there’s a Being who created all of this.”
Hundreds of thousands of people worked behind the scenes to make Apollo 11 a success, and it should be noted Canadians played a significant role.
It was James Chamberlin, a British Columbia-born engineer, who suggested the chosen two-ship approach, consisting of a command module to orbit the moon and a lander to descend to the moon's surface.
Engineer Owen Maynard, of Sarnia, Ontario, who made preliminary sketches of the lunar landing module, became chief of systems engineering for the Apollo program.
The lunar landing module’s legs, made of lightweight aluminum, were manufactured by Quebec’s Heroux-DEVTEK.
Calgary’s Bryan Erb helped develop the heat shield to protect the Apollo 11 astronauts.