Driftless Dark Skies

Fifty years ago on a Sunday night, July 20, 1969, we humans did something awesome. Two of us, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked and hopped about the dusty plains of the Sea of Tranquility as Michael Collins orbited overhead. Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s challenge from 1961 of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
It was morning at Tranquility Base. The crew of the Eagle had overcome a dangerous descent with computer alarms, low fuel warnings and a guidance system that took them 4 miles off target. The waning gibbous Earth was high overhead. The sun had just risen there and was casting long shadows that made it easier to see and avoid the craters and boulders that would kill them. Since Galileo first turned his telescope to the moon four centuries ago and saw that the moon was a world with mountains and valleys, we had long imagined this journey in our stories and movies. Scientists such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth read the books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, saw the movies of Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang, and did the math that showed it was possible. Walt Disney, Wernher Von Braun, Willie Ley and Chesley Bonestell popularized their ideas while Kennedy galvanized a nation to attempt a mighty deed. All three astronauts had been selected by Deke Slayton, a son of the Driftless who grew up on a farm outside Sparta in Monroe County. Now we were there and exploring it for the first time. Armstrong and Aldrin had just over two hours to bounce about and explore an area that would easily fit inside a soccer field. But in that short time, they set up experiments that measured the solar wind, moonquakes, the distance between Earth and Moon; raised the flag and took a congratulatory phone call from the president; and collected almost 50 pounds of rocks, regolith and core samples that would help to explain the origins and history of the moon and the early days of our solar system.
July will be a great month to gaze at the moon and consider the journey of Apollo 11. Look at the waxing crescent moon on July 6 for a dark area along the lunar equator halfway between the tips, and you’ll see the sun just beginning to illuminate the basaltic plains of the Sea of Tranquility. On July 7, the moon will be the same phase (one-third lit) as when Armstrong and Aldrin walked its surface on July 20, 1969. Moonset is around midnight both evenings. If the skies are cloudy here in the Driftless, there will be another chance Aug. 5 to enjoy a similar view.
It was not just two men who went to the moon but all of us. Over 400,000 people worked on Project Apollo. Hundreds of millions of us watched it live as it happened on TV that night and shared the wonder and awe of the astronauts as they explored. As the astronauts learned on their world tour that fall, people were celebrating not just an American feat but a human accomplishment. We did something awesome together that Sunday 50 years ago.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador and with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.