Neil Armstrong put a Flagstaff audience of 700 into the cockpit of the Eagle lunar lander with him Saturday, and together they helped to launch Lowell Observatory's $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope.
"There's something special about controlling a $50-plus million machine and getting results that have never before been achieved," Armstrong said during a 33-minute speech that included a rebroadcast with video simulation of the final minutes of his landing on the moon as seen through the window of the Eagle.
Armstrong was the keynote speaker at a gala dinner at the High Country Conference Center to celebrate the telescope's completion, a 10-year effort that experts never thought the small observatory atop Mars Hill could pull off.
"We bet the farm and we had to make this work," said Lowell Director Jeffrey Hall. "And it's working very well."
The evening included a photo of M109, a spiral galaxy, that is one of the first images from the new telescope, located at Happy Jack about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff.
William Lowell Putnam III, nephew of observatory founder Percival Lowell and the institution's governing trustee, gave credit to John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel for the initial funding of $10 million, an amount that has since been matched by several universities for the purchase of observing time.
The channel will air a documentary in September on the giant telescope, fifth largest in the United States and 10 years in the making.
"DCT was almost entirely made in America," said Robert Millis, a former director of the observatory who helped to launch the project. "No 'Made in China' stickers on this baby."
The night, however, belonged to Armstrong, now 81, who landed the Eagle and became the first human to walk on the moon 43 years ago this month. He took his audience back to the early astronomy of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, then up through his own involvement in calculating the distance between the Earth and the moon using mirrors placed in the moon's Sea of Tranquility to reflect laser pulses from Earth.
"I was the technician. My job was to install the mirrors," Armstrong quipped. "We had to have some way of confirming our mileage for our expense account."
But Armstrong got serious and the room grew still as he guided them through the minute-by-minute rebroadcast of the Eagle's perilous landing. Although fuel was running low, the computer alarm kept going off and the autopilot was guiding the craft toward a disastrous landing on the edge of a crater, Armstrong's voice as he spoke to Mission Control in Houston never wavered. He seized manual control of the craft and flew it like a helicopter to a smoother patch of lunar soil, touching down with only seconds of fuel left.
"Tranquility Base here," Armstrong could be heard telling Mission Control as the Flagstaff audience sighed audibly in relief. "The Eagle has landed."
Armstrong then turned to the DCT and how those who are risking their fortunes and their reputations to explore the universe must have faith that their efforts will pay off.
"Forty-three years from now, some of you younger folks will know just how important the DCT had become," he said. "You will have seen the discoveries ... you will have seen the knowledge that its use provided. And no doubt you'll see future mysteries that it revealed for future astronomers ... to solve."