“I was sitting in front of a black and white Magnavox TV, cross-legged but intrigued, happy to have a front row seat because the neighbors had started to crowd around,” my father said, recounting his memories from July 20, 1969. “Instead of the usual performers and scenes, the TV showed a grainy image of the lunar module poised on what looked like a sandy beach. And then an astronaut clad in a bulky space suit departed the lander, walked down the short stairs, stepped one foot, then two on the beach, and everyone watching the TV got really quiet.”
‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’” he recalled hearing the astronaut say in a garbled voice. “Most of us couldn’t appreciate the words, only the astounding, breathtaking image, and the unbelievable reality that mankind had ‘scienced’ their way to the moon.”
On this day 50 years ago, millions of people like my Dad across the world gathered around their TVs to watch the first ever humans walk on the moon. This day is marked in history as the success of 400,000 engineers and scientists who worked on the Apollo missions (and the countless people that preceded them) to allow them to make this massive achievement happen. The Apollo missions provided useful data about the Moon and the Earth while boasting the technological and innovative fortitude of the United States: a huge scientific and political victory.
I want you to think back to what it must have been like 50 years ago, when telephones were only landlines, when computers took up entire rooms, when mail was the cheapest and most reliable means of communication, and when televisions had three channels: NBC, CBS and ABC. 50 years ago, no one could yet fathom that scientists, engineers, and computer programmers could put their minds together to create a vehicle capable of propelling people out of the Earth's atmosphere, through space, and to the moon; a vehicle that would deliver a lander, successfully retrieve it, and then return the people to Earth safely, with the sand of the moon still on their shoes, and the images of lunar landscapes burned into their minds.
Americans believed in the mission. But although it was an incredible victory, it was not the last of humanity’s achievements in space.
What have we done since then?
After the feat of landing on the moon, it was hard to grasp people’s attention in such a way, to excite them about our continued space endeavors. After all, we made it pretty hard to live up to that… But in the last 50 years, we have continued to drive the boundaries of knowledge about space and our place in it. For this 50th anniversary, I’d like to let you know about some of those missions.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were spacecrafts designed to explore and gain data from Jupiter and Saturn and then continue on into deep space. Following their success with those two planets, they were used to collect data from Neptune and Uranus as well, allowing us to develop a deeper understanding of the elusive planets.
As it left our solar system going into interstellar space, Voyager 1 was positioned to take a picture of our solar system from a distance of 3.6 billion miles from Earth. Both spacecrafts are now more than 11 billion miles from Earth, and will continue to journey into deep space, relaying data back to Earth as they go. With their mission to venture for what could be forever into the uncharted territory of space, NASA included in each spacecraft a gold plated record (the gold to prevent it from extreme temperatures and radiation…or just so aliens think we are cool) containing spoken greetings in 55 languages, music by Bach and Chuck Berry, and songs by humpback whales.
Although there was no record player included, and the chances of a life form even finding it are excruciatingly small, we can marvel at the fact that some of the things we consider fundamental to life on our planet are traveling through space at 40,000 miles an hour, billions of miles away.
The Hubble telescope is perhaps the most innovative astronomy tool invented since Galileo’s invention of the first telescope more than 400 years ago. The Space Shuttle Discovery launched the Hubble telescope into Low Earth Orbit 29 years ago, and since then the data and pictures that it has captured are unrivaled. It has captured supernovas, black holes, and even the furthest star from Earth ever seen, Icarus, that is so far away that it would take 9 billion years for its light to reach Earth!
The massive telescope has provided data that allowed scientists to determine the age and expansion rate of the universe, detected oxygen in the atmosphere of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and given a closer look to the planets in our own solar system. The development of the Hubble telescope was ground-breaking, and it continues to allow us to be the pioneers of the universe, and understand our origins.
The Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft had a mission that was never really expected to succeed: to orbit and land on an asteroid. NEAR was created to explore and retrieve data from the asteroid Eros, the first near-Earth asteroid to be discovered in 1898. NEAR first got a good look at Eros in 1998 and moved into orbit on Valentine’s Day of 2000 – appropriate, considering Eros is the Greek god of love. After nearly a year in orbit and residing 196 million miles from Earth, NEAR became the first spacecraft to ever land on an asteroid.
NEAR was not actually expected to survive the landing, let alone be operational, but the milestones continued to be achieved as it ran experiments and collected data on Eros. NEAR collected data on Eros that included the composition, morphology, mineralogy, mass distribution, and magnetic field of the asteroid. While all of this may seem like boring stuff that only excited nerds in a communication booth somewhere, this data has allowed scientists to gain a better understanding of the conditions in the early Solar System and the state that we know it in today… and ultimately, has shaped everything you know about space.
The International Space Station (ISS) is the mission that perhaps excites me most about the capabilities of the scientists and engineers in our world. Residing in orbit 250 miles above Earth and traveling at 17,500 miles per hour (on a clear night or day, you can actually see it travel across the sky), the ISS is a habitable space laboratory that is inhabited by 3-6 astronauts at all times and is a hub for hundreds of scientific experiments at a time. The ISS has been a collaborative effort of 15 nations to construct, add on to, and share for the last 21 years.
Of all of the missions that aim to help us learn about the composition, history, and interactions of space, (of which ISS also does) the ISS is aimed at learning how humans can sustainably live in space and developing technology for future space travel. Among the many experiments on board, the astronauts who inhabit the ISS for an average of six months at a time are studying things like how the long-term effects of space radiation affect the body, how tissue regeneration is changes in zero gravity, and how to best grow greenery in an environment with limited oxygen and no gravity.
The work being done on the ISS is easily our best chance to understand how to move forward with manned missions to other planets, and the potential to inhabit bodies other than Earth.
Alright, so why go back to the moon?
NASA has announced its intentions to put astronauts back on the south pole of the moon by 2024, but why? We have already been to the moon, landed on asteroids hundreds of millions of miles away, and gotten to deep space, why not continue further and invest in traveling to unexplored territory? Well, that is actually the goal, and going back to the moon is the first step in achieving it.
NASA is acting upon President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1 to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system.” With commercial space flight in the very near future, we have to think about the prospects of exploring and colonizing new places in space. We are going back to the moon with the intent to test and perfect new technology and resources that can be used to create sustainable living spaces on Mars and beyond.
Although the political climate spurred the desire to first put man on the moon, as an aerospace engineer I can only imagine the sheer excitement of the challenge posed by the Apollo missions and euphoria of their success. In my opinion, it is raw, emotional excitement like this that should fuel our desire as scientists and human beings to continue what they started, and to push the boundaries of our own horizons.
Isaac Newton once said “if I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” That is exactly what the scientists and engineers of today are doing to achieve what was once assumed impossible. The Apollo missions proved that we could get to and walk on the moon, and 50 years later we are ready to show that we can sustain life there. The moon is merely a stepping stone for the rest of the universe; certainly not the final frontier, but definitely the next step for mankind. If I am sure of anything, it is that there is much more to be excited about.