On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of a stubby, ungainly and fragile little spacecraft and became the first human being to set foot on another world. As he stepped cautiously into the lunar dust, he spoke the immortal words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Forty-five years later, Armstrong’s first words on the surface of the Moon remain one of the most well-known quotes in history – as well as a clarion call for future generations.
Was Apollo 11 really a “giant leap for mankind”? As we look around the world of today, how different would things be had NASA not reached the Moon by the end of the 1960s?
Obviously our world is replete with science and technology that came from the Apollo Program. Pacemakers, water purifiers, freeze-dried foods, fireproof textiles, and comfortable shoe designs are just a few of the spin-offs from the Apollo Program. It has often been argued that spin-off technologies are a poor justification for an expensive and dangerous taxpayer-paid program, and that such things would eventually be invented anyway. Well, maybe – maybe not—by the same token, the fact that something might have been invented anyway seems a poor excuse not to do something that has many benefits.
But in broader terms, what today in 2014 do the six Moon landings of the project Apollo mean? Does it matter that we landed on the Moon?
For a brief period in our history, the Moon landings proved to the world that we—not just the United States, but we, the human race—were capable of anything. If we could land on the Moon, maybe we could end war, cure cancer, even conquer death and colonize the universe. It’s no coincidence that the wildly optimistic 2001: A Space Odyssey galvanized the public on movie screens at the height of the race to the Moon—or indeed that Star Trek’s popularity began to really build only after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin turned fiction into reality on July 20, 1969.
But then something happened. In November of 1969, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed on the Moon and conducted a far more in-depth mission of exploration and scientific research than Neil and Buzz’s brief and tentative foray. Despite this – fewer people were interested. It was only the second Moon landing mission, yet there was a broad sense of “been there, done that.” Not a good reaction to a high-profile and highly-visible program dependent on taxpayer dollars.
Worldwide interest in the Apollo Program was reignited only when things went disastrously wrong on the following mission, Apollo 13. Significantly, whereas everyone was rooting for Apollo 11 to land on the Moon—everyone was rooting for Apollo 13 to return home to Earth. After all, as Frank Borman had said on Apollo 8, the Moon “certainly does not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work.”
Apollo 14, despite putting the space program back on track, was criticized because of Alan Shepard’s famous golf swing, which was seen as frivolous. The most ambitious and spectacular Moon landing missions, the tour-de-force that was Apollos 15, 16, and 17, were practically ignored. NASA had to pay the news networks to show brief snippets of the Apollo 17 mission.
The world’s attention had wandered from the Moon and focused inward. Today, the Moon is farther away than ever. Every other President promised a mission to Mars, only to have it canceled by the next administration. The Constellation Program ordered by President George W. Bush, which was to return American astronauts to the Moon, was abruptly canceled by President Obama—with no advance notice and even less fanfare. Today NASA has degenerated into little more than a jobs program with a vague mission that keeps changing with each President.
Apollo 11 was supposed to change the world, wasn’t it? We were supposed to have bases on the Moon by 2001, remember? What happened?
In retrospect, the fervor with which the world, and the United States in particular, supported the Apollo Program had little to do with landing on the Moon and expanding the human presence into space. It was about beating the Russians. Once that stunt was accomplished, there was little point in pursuing the Moon any further. The deed was done. Now it was time to end the Vietnam War, to feed the poor, to do something about racial inequality.
The early promise of bases on the Moon seemed naïve and idealistic compared to the challenges we faced. There would be no United Federation of Planets; the world would be lucky not to strangle on its own pollution. Even today, although most Americans appear to support a return to the Moon, the reaction of a very significant percentage (including the President) is “we’ve been there before.” Almost any public discussion of the space program inevitably leads to the question “Why spend billions of dollars on space when we have problems here on Earth?”
So what is the legacy of Apollo?
It largely depends on where we go from here. If we don’t return to the Moon, then the original Moon landings might as well never have happened. The groundwork they laid becomes less and less relevant with each passing day; the expertise that went into producing the Apollo vehicles is long gone (Technicians actually dismantled an unused Apollo spacecraft in order to research how to build the Orion capsule). If another country, say Russia or China, returns to the Moon before the United States does, then their accomplishment will have little, if anything, to do with the Apollo Program. Their technology will be completely updated, born in today’s world of nanofibers and 3D printers, not the vacuum-tube world of the 1960s. The colonization of the Moon will have begun with them, not with Neil Armstrong’s historic “giant leap.” Too much time has elapsed between the heady days of Apollo and the era of “Hope and Change” that we currently find ourselves in.
In that case, the $25 billion spent on Apollo (about $100 billion in today’s currency) paid for little more than a good story and some amazing films and photographs. It was the most expensive science fiction movie ever made—filmed on location in space and on the Moon. And today no one except the most die-hard space aficionados watch it. NASA makes its footage available for free to the public, although Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films has compiled a dazzling store of footage from the Apollo program for sale in lavish DVD sets. But the return on NASA’s $25 billion investment certainly isn’t there.
The Apollo missions brought back hundreds of pounds of Moon rocks, yielding precious insight into our only natural satellite as well as how the Solar System was born. Indeed, the story of Apollo 16 yields a powerful argument for human, rather than robotic, space exploration. Robotic survey of the Moon had determined that the features of the lunar surface were formed by volcanism. Thus, John Young and Charlie Duke were trained to look for certain types of volcanic rock. Apollo 16 landed in the Descartes Highlands, presumed to be a prime site for collecting volcanic rocks—but all they found were breccias, formed from minerals fused together in meteoric impact. Apollo 16 revealed that the surface features of the Moon were formed not by volcanoes, but by meteorites. Apollo 16 was largely responsible for the current model of the Moon’s formation.
But…so what? So we know where the Moon came from. That’s interesting, but how does that impact the daily lives of ordinary people? Study of the Moon has led to a more complete understanding of the entire Solar System, including the Earth. But we could get by just fine without that knowledge, couldn’t we? It’s not like that helps us divert an asteroid headed our way.
Actually, few people are aware that even after all these decades, only about ten percent of the lunar rocks have been studied. After all this time, they continue to yield results. It was study of the Apollo 15 Moon rocks in 2008 that first revealed the presence of water on the Moon—an important discovery, since indigenous water will make a lunar base much more feasible.
The laser ranging retroreflectors left on the surface of the Moon by the Apollo missions are still used today, and a recent perturbation in the Moon’s motion cast doubt on Galileo’s discovery that all objects fall at the same rate regardless of their weight—ironic, since Dave Scott famously tested that theory on the Moon by dropping a hammer and feather simultaneously. This could have important consequences in our understanding of physics—which is, after all, at the bottom of all scientific knowledge and technological advancement.
Inevitably we will return to the Moon—if not the United States, then another nation. And whether the spacecraft they use are based on the designs proven under Apollo or not, their missions will be built on the groundwork laid by that program. Understanding of the physics of deep space flight, the mapping of the mascons (mass concentrations) that vary the Moon’s gravitational field, the type and amount of shielding necessary to protect astronauts from solar radiation from the Van Allen radiation belts, all will be built on the legacy of Apollo. Even if the next manned flight to the Moon is a century away, the foundation has been laid – the first “step” has been made.
Neil Armstrong’s first footstep on the Moon was not the giant leap everyone thought it would be, but it was a giant leap of a different kind. There’s a pleasant symbolism to the fact that when the next human foot steps into the lunar dust, Neil Armstrong’s footprints will still be there – leading the way.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group