An excerpt from 'Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?' by Mark R. Whittington.

Everyone who was of age on July 20, 1969, remembers where they were when men landed on the Moon. I was on a family vacation in Panama City Beach, Florida on that day. My family, along with another family with whom we had been friendly for years, crowed into a single beach-side motel room with one of the only working TVs to watch the first moonwalk.

The TV was ancient even for that era, a tiny black and white that could only get one channel.

The quality of television transmission would have been considered laughable by modern standards. But, as anyone who has seen that wonderful Australian movie The Dish knows, the technological achievement of getting television pictures from the surface of the Moon to TV screens on Earth was as impressive, in its own way, as getting men there and back.

The images that traveled from the Moon to millions of television sets on Earth were in black and white and fuzzy to boot. But the reason they were more beautiful than any special effects-laden science fiction movie was that they were real.

This was not some cinematographer’s conception of what a voyage to the Moon would be like. It was a voyage to the Moon.

Neil Armstrong was a blindingly white figure on the television screen as he descended down the ladder from the lunar module hatch to the ground. He lingered on the bottom of the ladder for tantalizing minutes as he observed the condition of the LM’s landing pads. Then, the moment arrived when he said, “I’m going to step off the LM now.”

A billion people on a planet that contained only a little more than three billion people held their collective breaths.

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

History is often bifurcated by singular events that change everything. So it was with the first Apollo moon landing. Before, the moon was terra incognita, a bright disk in the sky filled with mystery and wonder. After, it was a place where men had walked and explored, bringing back rocks and soil for generations of scientists to study, as valuable in their own way as gold the Spanish conquistadors had sought.

The rest of the two-hour excursion passed as if were a dream. Buzz Aldrin soon joined Armstrong on the lunar surface. They unveiled a plaque that commemorated the event. “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Later, they erected the American flag to note the fact that those men were Americans, their mission supported and paid for by the United States. In the middle of their collecting rocks and setting up experiments, Armstrong and Aldrin took a call from President Richard Nixon.

Then, in the fullness of time, the two men took their geology treasure back into the lunar module and blasted off for a rendezvous and docking with the Apollo command module then in lunar orbit.

A few days later, the crew returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, the great voyage of discovery completed.

The Apollo Moon landing was so successful and, dare I say, so cool, that we did it five more times with missions of increasing scope and sophistication.

Then, after the last Apollo moon mission departed the lunar surface in December 1972, we stopped.

Most people can recite from memory the first words spoken on the moon. But few people remember the last words, at least officially, said by Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan.

"I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record.

That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

The second-to-last sentence contains a promise that has yet to be fulfilled.

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