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In our opinion: The 'giant leap' wasn't just about man's achievements

It is up to us, the people of the future, to decide exactly what that giant leap was.

FILE - In this image provided by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Television is marking the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing with
In this image provided by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Television is marking the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing with a variety of specials about NASA's Apollo 11 mission.
NEIL A. ARMSTRONG

Every school child has learned the famous words uttered 50 years ago today by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he first walked on the moon.

“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” he said, after hopping from the last rung of the ladder of the lunar lander.

It is up to us, the people of the future, to decide exactly what that giant leap was.

FILE - In this image provided by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Television is marking the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing with
In this image provided by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Television is marking the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing with a variety of specials about NASA's Apollo 11 mission.
NEIL A. ARMSTRONG

Was it a leap into extraterrestrial exploration? If so, the world has made limited strides since then. Manned moon missions ended in 1972. NASA has landed several unmanned craft on the Moon and on Mars, but these have failed to stir imaginations on the scale of the Apollo program. Today’s space program seems lost between grand talk of a manned Mars mission and a series of private ventures trying to duplicate the successes of past generations.

Costs, something the nation was willing to bear 50 years ago because the Soviets were competing, is a limiting factor.

Was it a leap into technological discovery? Few people stop to think about the many spinoff inventions that arose from the space program. NASA has identified about 2,000 of these. They range from the satellites that help cellphone GPS apps guide you to a friend’s house to firefighting equipment, space blankets, infrared ear thermometers, a long list of medical advances and the scratch-resistant lenses commonly found in eyewear.

Much of the modern life we take for granted, including the instant audio and video connections many people enjoy to any part of the world using a handheld smartphone, came about because politicians long ago decided it was important to explore the heavens.

Or was it something else, something deeper? Maybe the giant leap was in the way we, as earthlings, ought to view our planet, as a marvelously beautiful, efficient, fragile and life-sustaining globe floating through the vast harshness of space.

Before Armstrong’s words, the crew of Apollo 8 had been the first to turn its cameras away from the Moon and back toward Earth, giving everyone a stunning view of this tiny blue planet against the backdrop of eternity, sending back images of an “earth rise” that seemed to put life in perspective.

A more recent astronaut, Ron Garan, described his feelings looking at Earth from the international space station. As quoted by sciencealert.com, he said. “Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I've come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all travelling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”

But maybe the lessons should run even deeper than that. What space explorers view in the great beyond is the vastness of creation, mankind’s seeming nothingness against the never-ending tapestry of planets and stars, the carefully placed elements and perfect perspective of Earth and sun that allows life to exist, and the spirit of gratitude and reverence this ought to evoke.

The crew of Apollo 8 was so moved it took turns reading the creation account from the Book of Genesis in a transmission heard worldwide. After Apollo 11 landed, Buzz Aldrin took communion on the moon using bread and wine he had brought from his church, and he asked people everywhere to pause and give thanks as they felt appropriate.

Maybe the giant leap wasn’t supposed to be some grand chest-thumping acknowledgement of man’s achievements, but a quiet, reverent reflection of what can be done through God’s help, if we keep things in their proper perspective. It’s up to us to decide.