And the number one Astronomy Picture of 2009 is…
#1: That First Small Step
At first, you might think I’m nuts. But if you haven’t seen this image before, take a good, close look. See that shiny white thing in the upper left?
That’s where humans first slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and walked on another world.
I was too young at the time for me to now remember Neil Armstrong stepping on the surface of the Moon in July, 1969. I do remember later missions, including watching from Cape Canaveral as Apollo 15 thundered off its launch pad. The excitement of those times was palpable, and is still fresh in my mind all these years later.
Still, there’s nothing like seeing it again, and having all those memories pour back…
And this image released the floodgate. Taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, this high-resolution picture clearly shows the landing site of the Eagle, just a few meters from West Crater. Large boulders and rubble are strewn to the left of the crater; the very same debris that caused Armstrong to take control of the Lunar Module from the computer and find a safe, flat place to land. He made it with mere seconds left in the fuel reserves, showing just why it’s sometimes critical to have a human at the wheel.
And there the lander sits, not even a half kilometer from certain destruction, showing how the history of humanity sometimes rests on a razor’s edge. In the zoomed section of the image, you can see the lander, its four footpads, and even the darker material around it as the astronauts’ bootprints stirred the lunar dust for the first time in perhaps millions of years. The arrow marks the position of the ladder affixed to the lander’s leg, the very place where Armstrong left the manmade vehicle and stepped into completely unknown territory.
For two and a half hours after that, two men from Earth scampered, played, measured, sampled, and photographed the environment, and in doing so drew a line right through history. Forever more, there will be a time before humans walked on another world, and a time after.
And that, of course, is why I picked this image as my Top Astronomy Picture of 2009. It may not be the prettiest, but its import is inarguable. This image reminds us of how far we’ve gone, and when I look at it I’m reminded of how far we have yet to go. It’s been nearly 40 years since a human walked on the Moon, and if we want to set our sights even farther, we’ll still have to cover that old ground again before taking another giant leap.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University