I was 6 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 deep in the heart. But seeing it on television made the event seem normal, like it could have been any old TV show. Going outside afterward made me think about how incredible it was. 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. That made it magical, and it changed my life.
This small step for a man was a giant leap for a 6-year-old. It 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.
Indeed, 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, such as the construction and operation of the International Space Station, knowledge I can now share with my students.
Apollo 11 is the greatest 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 truly go 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.
Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut, is a professor of professional practice at Columbia’s School of Engineering, where he teaches and advises student research about spaceflight topics, such as robotics, spacewalking and planetary exploration. He is the author of New York Times bestseller Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. Massimino tweets about all things space at @AstroMike and on Instagram @astromikemassimino.
This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.