Celebrating 50 Years
Imagine surviving as a fighter pilot and you’ve already orbited the planet. Now you’re in a 180-lb. spacesuit and getting sealed into the cramped command module atop a 363-foot-tall rocket for the most important NASA mission ever!
Fifty years ago, the United States faced an uncertain and at times a frightening future. Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the U.S. had fallen behind in the Space Race. But the Apollo 11 mission, watched by millions worldwide, was a giant leap forward for us. It’s time to celebrate the 50th year of our first steps on the moon!
The Space Race…
Sending humans into space is a daunting challenge. It takes imagination, innovation, determination, teamwork and don’t forget money—a whole lot of it!
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union remained high in the 1960s, with each country trying to gain the upper hand. So shows of superior technology were important. The Soviets had sent the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space on Oct. 4, 1957, and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.
The following month, President John F. Kennedy unveiled a big, seemingly impossible plan, one that would top the Soviets. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he proposed to a joint session of Congress. “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!”
Why the Moon?
For thousands of years, people have gazed at, made stories about and studied the moon. Its phases affect Earth, and the Earth affects the moon, points out Dr. Tim Swindle, director of the University of Arizona’s highly respected Lunar and Planetary Lab.
Dr. Swindle grew up following NASA. He remembers his principal interrupting his kindergarten classroom to announce that Alan Shepard had become the first American in space. “All through the 1960s, I knew who all the astronauts were and followed the Mercury, Gemini and the Apollo missions,” he shares. In grad school, he jumped at the chance to analyze samples the astronauts had brought back from the moon! “That’s what I ended up spending a lot of my career doing—analyzing samples from the moon and meteorites. The Apollo Program set me up for that. One of the things that has always appealed to me about studying extraterrestrial material is the chance to hold a piece of the moon or Mars or an asteroid,” he says.
In January 1969, NASA announced that three astronauts would go up in Apollo 11—commander Neil Armstrong from Ohio, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin from New Jersey, and command module pilot Michael Collins, born in Rome, Italy. Their target was to land on the moon some 239,000 miles away!
On July 15, the three were sealed into the command module atop a super powerful Saturn V rocket at around 11 p.m. The countdown went surprisingly smoothly, and at 9:32 the next morning, Apollo 11 roared toward space from Pad A of Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center with about a million spectators nearby to experience liftoff. Millions more watched on TV.
For the astronauts and the thousands of team members behind them, “I understand why people want to explore—there’s an excitement about going someplace where people have never been before,” Dr. Swindle points out. “I also understand why people want to see people exploring. I think it’s part of human nature.”
The command module/service module, Columbia, and lunar module, Eagle, traveled three days before they began orbiting the moon. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into the lunar module and separated from the command module, leaving Collins orbiting in Columbia as the Eagle descended toward its landing spot in the Sea of Tranquility.
With TV cameras on board, over 53 million U.S. households and more than 530 million worldwide watched. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong announced. It was a very soft landing, but with help from Aldrin, Armstrong had to do some of the flying manually after the onboard computer ran into data trouble.
It took the astronauts several hours to get ready for their moonwalk—which would be the first time that a human had set foot on another celestial body. But at 10:56 p.m., Armstrong climbed down the ladder. “That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong famously says before stepping onto the moon!
Armstrong also guided Aldrin down the ladder. Together they explored the surface, took breathtaking still photos and TV footage, planted the American flag, and collected almost 50 pounds of moon rocks and soil samples.
Not only did Apollo 11 win the Space Race, the rocks and soil samples the crew collected are still being studied.
The Earth and moon share their start about 4 1/2 billion years ago, and Dr. Swindle has used moon rocks to try and date lunar events and to even study particles from the sun.
“Scientifically it’s been a treasure trove because the moon has not had running water or plate tectonics and things like that (which break down rocks here on Earth). The rocks preserved are much older,” he explains.
Perhaps even more beneficial to us are innovations to computer technology from Apollo 11, something that people might miss, he points out. Computers were massive in the 1960s, but the command and lunar modules needed onboard computers, which required something much smaller. To shrink things, NASA looked to new (and expensive) integrated circuits. These electronics enabled much smaller yet powerful essentials like home and notebook computers, tablets, and smart phones and watches!
A Brief History of Rockets & Spaceflight!
Did you know that the history of spaceflight can be traced all of the way back to the IIth century?
The Chinese combined sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter to make gunpowder for fuel in rockets for warfare. Over the next 800 years, scientists began experimenting with metal and different types of fuel while also looking upwards toward the sky.
In the 1920s, Robert Goddard, sometimes known as the “Father of Modern Rocketry,” made significant strides in spaceflight. In 1926, he launched the first successful liquid-fueled rocket. Three years later, he launched another rocket carrying the first set of scientific tools, a barometer and a camera.
However, it was Oct. 4, 1957, that marked the start of the space age in the United States. The Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, which was the world’s first artificial satellite. The 183.9-pound satellite brought on a flurry of political, military and scientific developments.
Following lots of continued pressure from the Soviet Union, the United States responded on Oct. 1, 1958, with the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It was built on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government organizations to further several objectives, including “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”
Four years later, in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and announced his goal that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
It was a lofty and ambitious goal and many people worried it couldn’t be done. But that didn’t stop the scientists at NASA. In 1962, John Glenn made the first U.S. manned orbital flight. In 1965, Ed White became the first American to walk in space. And on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon, fulfilling President Kennedy’s promise when they successfully returned home to Earth.
Over the next 60 years, NASA continued to push boundaries and dramatically changed our understanding of the universe in which we live. NASA has completed reconnaissance of our solar system, employed the Hubble Space Telescope, sent 149 people to the International Space Station, and explored Mars—a planet that is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth!
Blue Origin. SpaceX. Virgin Galactic.
NASA has made a lot of headlines in the last 60 years, but private companies have also been making headlines in the last few years and are expected to continue doing so. With the competition between private companies, some people see the dawn of a new space race. In January 2016, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, became the first to re-launch and re-land a previously used rocket. In February 2018, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launched the SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk’s Tesla into orbit around the sun. Just last month, NASA announced that the International Space Station will open for tourist visitors and private astronauts starting in 2020—with a hefty price tag of $35,000 per night to stay there, plus the nearly $60 million cost of the trip to reach the space station.
So what does it mean for space travel with private companies getting into the new space race? Many have expressed hope that private companies will focus on short-range missions, like returning to the moon, while NASA can focus on ambitious, longer-term projects that are not likely to be immediately profitable. One thing is certain: only time will tell where the newest space race will take us!
moonfest: The University of Arizona is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with special events and exhibits. Learn more at moonfest.arizona.edu
Fabulously Fun Space Facts!
• Twelve men have walked on the moon. Neil Armstrong was the first in 1969 on the Apollo 11 mission. The last man to walk on the moon was Gene Cernan in 1972 on the Apollo 17 mission.
• Project A119 was a top-secret plan developed by the U.S. Air Force in 1958. It was going to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon. The project was never carried out and was revealed in 2000 by a NASA executive, Leonard Reiffel, who was the leader of the project in 1958. Carl Sagan was also part of the team.
• Apollo 11 astronauts had a variety of 70 different dehydrated food items to eat in space. The first meal eaten on the moon was peaches, bacon, sugar cookie cubes, juice and coffee.