Neil Armstrong’s left boot print on the Moon—the celebrated ‘one small step’. Credit: NASA
What were you doing 40 years ago, on July 20th, 1969, when the first human foot (booted, not bare) made its impression on the gritty surface of the Moon? That is, if you’re over 40 yourself….

I was in Oakland, lying on the green carpet of my family’s living room floor, watching our black and white Zenith television set—the kind that would take a minute or so to warm up before delivering the handful of local VHF TV broadcasts within range of our aerial antenna.

Right. It was definitely another era. As archaic as the telecommunications technology may sound to those born after, oh, 1980, it was nevertheless the Space, not Stone, Age…. Never forget, the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon was the culminating moment of the whole adventure that started the Space Age.

It didn’t really matter that our Zenith was a b/w set, as all the images from Apollo 11 and the Moon’s surface were transmitted in black and white anyway. My eyes were riveted to the TV, the grainy, fuzzy image of the Eagle’s landing strut and ladder as yet empty.

“What’s taking them so long?” I complained impatiently (I was seven years old). I remember waiting for what seemed a couple of hours for the astronauts to come out.

“They’re probably playing poker inside,” was my dad’s reply. I don’t recall if I believed him or not. Finally, there was a booted foot at the top of the ladder, attached to the bulky white and gray form of a human in a space suit—Neil Armstrong, of course. And, history was made—twice: Buzz Aldrin came down the ladder soon after.

Some of you younger crowd may have been born into a world where humans walked on the Moon a long time ago, but I was born around the time it was actually happening. (In fact, I was born the year after the first human went into space; similarly my grandfather was born the year of the Wright Brothers’ first aerial success—how time flies….)

On Monday, we not only mark four decades since that singular historic event, we do so at a time when there are plans afoot for humans to step onto the Moon once again.

Several robotic probes have gone Moonward in recent years, paving the way: Clementine, Lunar Prospector, and only last month the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) were launched in tandem. LRO will give us our most detailed and comprehensive view of the Moon’s surface appearance and conditions to date, and will help to identify future possible landing sites. LCROSS will look for water ice in a crater floor at the Moon’s South Pole by impacting it with an empty booster rocket and studying what is blasted skyward. Water on the Moon would be a resource to future human missions far more valuable than gold.

Neil’s left boot print is still up there, next to the Eagle’s landing foot, most likely as fresh and new looking as when it was made (unless it got bulls-eyed by a one in a million meteorite strike!).

As there is no air, and thus no erosion, on the Moon, the print serves equally well as a monument to that decades-ago venture, or as a logo for the enterprise of our return. Fitting, too, as the Moon could serve as a stepping stone to destinations beyond….

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Neil Armstrong’s Lunar Footprint Turns 40 12 June,2013Ben Burress


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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