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Walking on the moon: a singular, solitary experience

by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) July 12, 2009
For the man of faith, walking on the moon challenged and redefined his concept of God and creation. For the scientist, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to deepen his knowledge.

But astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt can agree on one thing: mankind has a duty and a responsibility to continue its adventure in space in our solar system and beyond.

Aldrin, now 79, landed on the moon aboard the historic July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 mission, stepping off the landing craft just minutes behind mission commander Neil Armstrong.

He was 39 at the time and the celebrity status he gained as the second man to walk on the moon changed his life forever.

Schmitt, a geologist and like Armstrong a civilian, reached the moon on the December 1972 Apollo 17 mission, the last manned US lunar mission. He was 37.

They are members of the exclusive club of 12 astronauts, all Americans, who have realized the dream of ages and touched the surface of the moon, a unique experience which sets them apart from others.

With the passage of time, only nine of them are still alive, and they rarely, if ever, communicate with each other.

"Magnificent desolation," Aldrin said as he stepped out onto the moon's surface on July 20, 1969, describing for hundreds of millions of Earthlings the vista of the lunar landscape spread before him.

A devout Christian, Aldrin revealed years later that he took communion while the spacecraft was on the moon, using a travel kit provided by his Presbyterian pastor.

But within three years of returning to Earth, he had left NASA and begun a descent into alcoholism and depression in part due to the pressures of his celebrity status, battles that he eventually won.

He told AFP that his unique experience walking on the moon had redefined his spirituality into one of a "much broader universality."

He came to believe in the idea of "an Einstein, cosmic, religious, spiritual, higher power intelligence having somehow created the entire universe, and we are but a small part of that, with our concepts of deity maybe not consistent with the overall creation."

Today Aldrin manages to live a largely private life "because so far my visage is not that recognizable in a lot of places," he said, though he fears that may change with the 40th anniversary moon landing celebrations.

And while he chose to quit the NASA program for personal reasons, Aldrin strongly believes in supporting space travel programs. "It's mankind's destiny to walk on another planet," he said.

"We can achieve it, but we've got to have the right plan," he said.

However, no nation can carry out such ambitious programs alone, and the experience gathered by those who undertake missions should be shared for all humankind, he said.

The exploration and colonization of the solar system is "a pathway to establishing an alternate survival location for the human race, and at some point a maturing Earth society should take the necessary steps to ensure its survival."

Schmitt, 74, a geologist and the only scientist to walk on the moon, had a considerably different experience from Aldrin. "To be honest I don't think it changed me," he told AFP.

"The only thing that has been different since I flew on the Apollo 17 mission is that people ask me about that... I think my view of the Earth and the solar system and the universe did not change," he said.

Unlike Aldrin, Schmitt -- who after his NASA career went on to be a US senator for the southwestern state of New Mexico -- wants limited international cooperation in space endeavors.

"I consider it essential for the long-term survival of democratic republics" to remain "active and extremely competitive in space," said Schmitt.

"It's imperative that the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and other like-minded countries be competitive in deep space because -- I can guarantee you -- the non-democratic nations of the world -- China, Russia and maybe others -- fully intend to be dominant in space," he said.

Those nations understand the importance of the Apollo program during the Cold War years, he said, and "fully intend to gain that kind of prestige, that kind of advantage in technology and education and other fields that comes with being the dominant space power."

Like Aldrin, Schmitt supports NASA's Constellation Program -- which will replace the Space Shuttle program -- describing it as "conceptually... excellent," but worries that it is seriously underfunded.

"If you want to maintain even the current schedule of launching the Orion spacecraft in 2015, it's my understanding that NASA needs to recover about 11 to 12 billion dollars that have not been funded," Schmitt said.

"It's not the program that is wrong, it's the way that has been funded," he added.

And Schmitt and Aldrin both also agree on one further point: the elite group of ex-lunar walkers have no interest in gathering socially.

"Apollo astronauts are type A personalities and they don't join together very often... they are very independent," said Schmitt.

The group meets only for official events, he said.

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Space Foundation Publishes Apollo 11 Recollections
Colorado Springs CO (SPX) Jul 10, 2009
The historic moment almost 40 years ago when man first set foot on the Moon had enormous impact on those who watched, often inspiring them to pursue space or science careers. This is the picture painted by the more than 100 recollections of the Apollo 11 Moon landing being published on the Space Foundation's website this week and next. The brief comments come from a wide range of ... read more

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