When Apollo 8 left Earth orbit for the Moon back in 1968, a historical record was set! They were the first humans ever to leave Earth’s orbit and head out to deep space. It was risky, bold, and just the thought of traveling to the Moon at almost a quarter of a million miles from Earth was astounding!
All of this was accomplished in a spacecraft that had less computing power than a personal computer! Hard to believe, but the mind-set in the sixties was such that risk-taking was second nature. NASA was committed to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and come hell or high water nothing was going to stand in their way.
The distance from the Earth to Moon is actually quite small in astronomical terms. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is 93 million miles, quite a lot longer but still just a blip in galactic distance, where our Milky Way galaxy is over 100,000 light-years from end to end! Trying to wrap our minds around that distance isn’t easy, especially when the speed limit of our known universe is the speed of light. And the speed of light is fast! Try 186,000 milers per second! That means that it would take just a bit over a second for light to reach the Moon from the Earth. It’s quite clear our rockets have some catching up to do if we are to traverse just our tiny little solar system. On the galactic scale, that is…..
When Apollo 11 set off on it’s historic landing attempt, another record was set. It was the first time in history that a man, namely Michael Collins who was the command module pilot, was the first person to be geographically the furthest distance from humanity! His orbit took him to the far side of the Moon and back again. So when he looked out the craft portholes, he didn’t see the Earth, he saw deep space. Talk about being isolated!
While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were descending in their very tiny Eagle landing craft, Michael Collins was orbiting the Moon in the command module. If for some reason there was a problem and the astronauts were stranded on the Moon, then Mike Collins would have no way of rescuing them, as the command module wasn’t designed to land. He would have had a very lonely journey back to Earth! A very sad and lonely journey I might add…..
But luckily that didn’t happen, and all turned out well as we know. But to everyone including the astronauts, the distance from the Earth to the Moon was immense against the cold blackness of space. Our Earth just hung in this infinite void, looking so very fragile and alone…..
So when we really think about it, distance is a very objective concept. In the future when we are winging our way to Mars, the distance from the Earth to the Moon will seem like going to the corner store, as our spacecraft will have very advanced propulsion systems, at least far more advance than the chemical behemoth which was the Saturn 5.
What is the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Well, let’s just say that it takes light 4.3 light-years to get there. Since we know that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, there are a lot of seconds to fill in one year let alone 4 years! That is a long, long way indeed…….