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Apollo 11 — 35 Years later… by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson

On July 16, 1969, three men began a voyage that would forever change our world, and mark their place in the history books. They were aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft that launched from Cape Kennedy with a simple mission objective: “Perform a manned lunar landing and return safely.”

On July 20, just four days after jettisoning into orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on another planet. Their lunar module, Eagle, touched down in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, while the third crew member, Michael Collins, the pilot and navigator for the mission, orbited above in the command module Columbia.

The first words uttered on the moon, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” have become synonymous with space exploration and the innately American drive to continue that spirit of discovery. The two astronauts traversed the moon’s surface collecting the first ever lunar samples, taking photographs and conducting experiments. Four days later they reentered the earth’s atmosphere, splashing into the Pacific Ocean where they were greeted by the aircraft carrier, Hornet, a beaming President Nixon, and a nation overflowing with goodwill, pride, and patriotism.

I was a young television reporter in Houston, when I covered the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts and their families during the 1969 moon landing. Since that time I’ve been an enthusiastic backer of manned space exploration and in my 11 years in the Senate I’ve worked hard to ensure America keeps pushing the envelope; maintaining our space program as a top priority, and assuring our technological edge in the world continues.

Our world has changed significantly since Neil Armstrong took the giant leap for mankind 35 years ago and many of the changes have been fueled by discoveries made in space. Microchips, satellite communication, cordless appliances, CAT scans and guided missiles were all advanced by the knowledge we gained in space. Even that initial lunar landing produced discoveries such as the knowledge that the Moon is lifeless, containing no living organisms, fossils, or native organic compounds, enabling us to learn more about the world that surrounds us.

After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster last year, we’ve been forced to reevaluate our space program and infuse NASA with a renewed mission and objective for the future of space exploration. This year President Bush unveiled a new vision for NASA, committing the U.S. to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, beginning with a return to the Moon that will enable future explorations of Mars and other destinations. His proposals offer tremendous potential to further research in energy, geology, and other fields. This spring the robotic rover, Opportunity, discovered that there was once water on Mars and therefore possibly life.

And all the while, NASA has continued its missions into space. Just last month the Cassini spacecraft successfully entered orbit around Saturn. The mission, taking place 934 million miles away from earth, and with the cooperation of our partners at the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, began seven years ago when the craft first left Cape Canaveral in 1997. For the next four years the Cassini will orbit Saturn, executing 52 close encounters with seven of the planet’s 31 known moons. This mission is just one slice of the amazing work being conducted by the scientists, researchers and astronauts who strive to keep discovery in the forefront of our consciousness.

This month as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of man’s first footsteps on the moon, we commemorate Apollo 11, the pioneers who manned it and the great spirit of discovery that still dwells in us today. It also reminds us that staying in the forefront of space exploration will help us grow the economy and maintain defense prowess. With an ambitious plan in place, the 21st century could bring untold discoveries.