Forty-three years ago last week, millions of people worldwide huddled around grainy black and white television screens and watched Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon. The moment inspired others to wonder what else was possible.
On Saturday, Armstrong promised astronomers still have much more to discover with the help of a brand new telescope just an hour north of Payson, designed to take advantage of Rim Country’s crystal clear skies.
Armstrong made a rare public appearance to help unveil the Lowell Observatory’s $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) and its “first light” image.
“Forty-three years from now, some of you younger folks will know just how important the DCT had become,” Armstrong said. “You will have seen the discoveries … and no doubt you’ll see new mysteries for future astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists to solve.”
The Discovery Channel will air a series on the telescope, again bringing Americans along the journey of discovery.
A crowd of 735 at the High Country Conference got a first look at the documentary, which follows the 10-year effort to build the telescope, just a few miles from the Happy Jack Ranger Station.
“As the Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory comes online for the very first time, the partnership between Discovery and Lowell on this telescope is a perfect example of how curiosity, private investment and scientific research can combine to enable innovation and wonder,” said John Hendricks, the founder of Discovery Communications.
The Discovery Channel started filming in 2005, capturing the ups and down of construction of the 4.3-meter telescope, a feat many thought the observatory could not pull off.
Lowell Director Jeffrey Hall said the institution would likely not have survived if building the scope had failed.
“We bet the farm and we had to make this work,” he said. “And it’s working very well.”
The telescope is designed to accommodate a wide range of research projects. The goal is to educate, enlighten and inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers to “deliver us to the next frontier,” Hall said.
Robert Millis, Lowell’s director emeritus, said the sky is clear and dark at the 7,750-foot site.
Armstrong was given a tour of the telescope Sunday after delivering an inspirational speech at the telescope’s unveiling.
In his speech, Armstrong brought the audience into the Eagle lunar lander just moments before it touched down in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.
Using a video simulation created by an amateur astronomer, side-by-side video of the final four minutes of descent show what Armstrong saw through the window of the Eagle 43 years ago and what it looks like today.
Famously, Armstrong took the module off autopilot after the Eagle overshot its landing zone, nearly sending the crew into a crater the size of Dodgers Stadium.
“It was definitely a bad landing spot. So I take control over away from the autopilot and fly the Eagle manually like a helicopter further to the west trying to find a smoother and more level area suitable for landing.”
The version of the rebroadcast had never been shown publicly before. Armstrong called it an “American premiere.”
“There is something special about controlling a $15-plus million dollar machine and getting results that have never before been achieved.”
Although the mission was a success and mirrors Armstrong installed are still used today to calculate the distance between the Earth and Moon, Armstrong says people inevitably still question the value of space exploration.
One day, however, overpopulation, radiation, nuclear holocaust or epidemic disease could force an early migration from Earth, he said.
While not prophesying an apocalypse, “it does suggest there is some importance of fact that we know now that the whole of the human species is not inherently restricted to Earth. The universe around us is both our challenge and our destiny,” he said.
For centuries, astronomers have studied the skies and their advancements and discoveries helped change the world. From Tycho Brahe, who accurately plotted the position of stars and planets, to Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who developed his own theories on planetary motion, which became known as Kepler’s Laws.
A century later, Isaac Newton built on these ideas and developed the universal theory of gravitation and laws of motion.
“His laws of motion gave logic to the process of synthesis and changed the world,” Armstrong said. “By the end of the 18th century, we had the invention of the steam engine, the improvement of textile processing machines and the evolution of iron works and improved productivity and reduced costs of manufactured products.
“No period in history has recorded a comparable improvement in living standards and all because of the determination of a man measuring angles between celestial objects.
“We can’t help but wonder what astronomical discoveries and consequent societal development the Discovery Channel Telescope might engender,” he added. “We know easily a thousand times more about the universe around us than we did at the dawn of the space age. With instruments like the DCT, and pinch of brilliance, we can expect that knowledge to increase and increase and continue.”
The telescope is estimated to have a $500 million economic impact over its lifetime.