More than an astronaut; an American Airman

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- July marked the 41st anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an achievement of those who strived to accomplish the unthinkable.

Americans are not strangers to this historic feat. We proudly claim our historical place as the first nation on the moon. From satellites to space shuttles, we have relished in our ability to establish an orbital existence. The Peterson Air and Space Museum showcases many satellites, both replicas and retired, for guests to view and read about the history that accompanies them.

In the Air Force, the 1969 moon landing has not only helped define us as Americans, but as Airmen.

As the events of the twentieth century unfolded, two unprecedented forces came to challenge the outer limits of human imagination and exploration.

The first was the United States government's pursuit to harness the skies by the development and confirmation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947. The mission to explore and develop air and space power was one of the purposes of the National Security Act of 1947.

The second came nearly 10 years later in 1958 as an Executive Branch Agency was formed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Its mission was established to pioneer exploration, discovery and research in space.

It would only be a short time later when President Kennedy would deliver his famous address at Rice University on the Nation's space effort and declare: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . ."

Two strategic missions of the U.S. Air Force and NASA were destined to shape the way Americans looked to the skies and beyond. Consequently, they helped define a legacy of the American Airmen. July 20 marked the day nearly 50,000 people watched as three men made history in their endeavor to the moon as a "giant leap for mankind" was made.

Howard Benedict, an Associated Press aerospace writer, in 1969 asked, "Who are they, these three men who will fly to the moon and thus inscribe their names alongside the greatest explorers in mankind's history?"

Well, I will tell you. The Air Force may have a short history compared to the other military branches, but it is a rich and unparalleled one. Two of the three men who traveled beyond the limits of this world were in fact American Airmen of the highest degree and military standing. It is important to recognize the Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong, a former Navy aviator who was the first to step on the moon's surface. He served four years as an aviator and flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War.

The Command Module Pilot for Apollo 11 was Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Collins, who circumnavigated the moon alone as his fellow crew members made the historic lunar landing. Before donning the astronaut badge, he was a test pilot for the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He tested performance, stability and control characteristics of experimental Air Force jet fighters.

Throughout his Air Force career he would serve at several bases to include Columbus Air Force Base, Nellis AFB, Randolph AFB and many others, logging nearly 5,000 hours of flying. After leaving NASA, he went on to hold such positions as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, director of the national air and space museum and under secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; he attained the rank of major general in 1976 in the Air Force Reserves and eventually retired in 1982.

The Lunar Module Pilot of the Apollo 11 was Air Force Col. Edwin Aldrin, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who became a fighter pilot in the Air Force in the 1950's, flying 66 combat missions in the Korean War. He served as an aerial gunner instructor at Nellis AFB and went on to serve as aide to the dean of faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He flew Super Sabres with the 22nd Fighter Squadron in Germany, and earned a doctorate in Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Throughout Colonel Aldrin's career in the Air Force, he received several honors to include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Air Force Legion of Merit, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1972, Colonel Aldrin retired from Air Force active duty after 21 years of service.

These distinguished American Airmen are living testaments to the spirit of the Air Force. We can be reminded that our traditions were forged from the greatest endeavors, dreamed by many but pursued by few. We are a force that builds working relationships of the highest of military standards, which pursues excellence, achieves greatness, and carries forward the security of a nation, all while working with our sister services.

If anything, our Airmen astronauts remind us that we are faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor; they are American Airmen.