July, 1969, marked the beginning of a new era in human history. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did what no man had done before, namely place foot on the surface of the Moon. Up to this very moment, many human beings do not regard the Moon as something that has a surface with sand and rocks, much less as something that is a world in its own right.
Three young men started off from Kennedy Space Centre on a trip to the Moon in the Apollo 11 Mission. Only two reached the surface of the Moon. As Armstrong took his small step on the Moon, which signified a giant leap for mankind, and as Aldrin got lost in the “splendid isolation” of the Moon, a third astraunaut called Michael Collins was orbiting the Moon in the command module, which he was pilot of.
Armstrong and Aldrin had gotten into a vehicle called the Lunar Lander (christened Columbia), which separated from the command module and descended to the surface. When it was time to leave, the Lunar Lander lifted off the surface and rejoined the command module before the Earth-bound trip was embarked upon.
While Armstrong and Aldrin attained celebrity status when they returned to Earth, the third member of the team, Collins, remains relatively unknown. That, probably, is the price you pay for going to the Moon and fall short of touching down on the surface. And yet the role played by Collins was as crucial as those played by Armstrong and Aldrin, for without Collins, the two would not have managed to come back home.
We lost Armstrong in August 2012. He was aged 82 at the time of his death. Just last week, we lost Collins, aged 90. Aldrin is the only surviving member of the Apollo 11 crew.
These three men showed the rest of us that space could, actually, be visited; that it was possible to go to another world away from Earth and come back. Twelve white men have so far landed on the Moon, Armstrong being the first. Each, but one, of the missions, from Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, landed two astronauts on the Moon. The only exception was Apollo 13, which developed a mechanical problem just before they arrived on the Moon, prompting them not to land. Thanks to mission commander, Astraunaut Jim Lovell’s decision to attempt to come back to Earth. The team made it back successfully after the aborted mission.
NASA is planning to send a crewed mission back to the Moon soon, possibly by 2024. This time round, they want to open up space exploration to all groups of people and, therefore, there will be at least a woman, and at least one black person on the crew.
There are a number of African American women who have the credentials to join the 2024 crew to the Moon. Among them, is Jessica Watkins, a 33-year-old African-American woman whose PhD was on landslides on Mars.
In Africa, we have several girls who could be considered for accolade of being the first woman or the first black person on the Moon. Several articles I featured a Nigerian girl, Esther Okade, who had already enrolled for university education at the age of 10. She turned out to be a mathematics genius, performing better than her older classmates in a British university.
Another Nigerian girl, Faith Odunsi, emerged the winner in a mathematics competition in March, this year, after beating contestants from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States of America. We have no shortage of Africans with the necessary credentials in mathematics and the sciences to meet requirements for such lofty tasks as travelling to space.
Collins and his colleagues were the pioneers of space travel. They did their part and are now leaving Earth, one by one, for their final destination. It remains for us to take on the cue and conquer space in this or the next generation. The Moon is now regarded as a local or near local destination. People’s eyes are now cast on further bodies such as Mars, or even some satellites of the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).
If we search within Malawi and within Africa, we will find many eligible young people who can ably follow the footsteps of Collins et al and open up new chapters in space travel. Elon Musk is planning to establish a city with one million inhabitants on Mars. Perhaps, some of the people to trek to the neighbouring planet will be from Malawi.