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The Moon has held man's imagination for millennia. As with the dream of flying, few staring at our natural satellite in past generations, thought it would be possible for man to walk on its surface one day. Yet 66 years after the Wright brothers' first successful flight, Neil Armstrong, walking down the ladder of the Eagle capsule, uttered the famous words: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. It was 20 July 1969 and some 600 million were watching in awe, as a man set foot on the Moon for the first time.
This had prompted President John F. Kennedy on 25 May 1961 to announce to a special session of congress the ambitious goal to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The necessary funding was quickly granted: NASA's budget was increased from 0,1% of GDP in 1958 to a vigorous 4,4% (at its peak in 1966). A serious of robotic precursory missions were launched to explore the Moon and map its surface for a suitable landing site (projects Ranger, Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter). They were followed by projects Mercury and Gemini that tested the feasibility of human spaceflight, maneuvers in space and reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.
The Space Race
Diverse factors contributed to this historic achievement, not all entirely due to a spirit of exploration. In the aftermath of World War II the two superpowers had entered an arms race for which space capabilities were becoming increasingly more important. When then the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, the alarm bells where ringing in Washington.
At first the Soviets were ahead in the space race: aside fromSputnik 1, their Luna 3 mission had been the first to photograph the far side of the Moon (1959), Alexei Leonov would be the first man to perform a space walk (1965) and before him cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had made headlines as the first man in space ! (12 April 1961).
Fire in the Cockpit (Apollo 1)
Landing a man on the Moon got real with the Apollo missions. But it begun with a tragedy: on 27 January 1967 during a launch rehearsal test a fire broke out in the cabin killing astronauts Grissom, White, Chaffee on the launchpad. Manned Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months while command module hazards were addressed and safety standards improved.
The First Lunar Orbital Flight (Apollo 8)
Initially only planned as a lunar and command modules test flight in Earth orbit, under pressure in the space race and the lunar module not being ready yet, the Apollo 8 mission was converted in a more ambitious piloted mission around the Moon. Astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first crew ever to fly to the Moon, albeit without landing. They were the first to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes. While in orbit around the Moon Anders took the iconic Earthrise picture.
The Eagle has Landed (Apollo 11)
The crew of Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in the morning of 16 July 1969. After three days they reached lunar orbit. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin entered the lunar module, and descended down to the lunar surface while Collins remained in the command module in lunar orbit. The eagle, both the name of the lunar module and the prominent feature on the Apollo 11 insignia, had landed. On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon. Shortly later Buzz Aldrin followed him while millions on Earth were watching. The two stayed on the lunar surface for some two hours doing experiments and collecting rock samples, before entering the lunar ascend vehicle. After reuniting with their colleague Michael Collins in lunar orbit, they headed back to Earth splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on 24 July.
Further Apollo Missions
Many things could have gone wrong during the mission, considering the breathtaking pace with which the entire enterprise had taken place. The Apollo project in just 8 years had gone from (almost) zero human spaceflight capabilities to landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.
That spaceflight is a dangerous endeavor indeed did find out the Apollo 13 crew when an oxygen tank exploded halfway to the Moon. The three astronauts hardly managed to return to Earth in an emergency maneuver after their mission had been aborted.
Lunar missions nonetheless continued unabated. Apollo 15 was the first mission to have a rover, allowing for more extensive exploration. With Apollo 17, the final and most extensive of the Apollo missions, the crew stayed on the Moon for over 3 days. Overall there have been 6 crewed lunar landings and twelve men have walked on the Moon so far. Since 1972 no human has travelled beyond low Earth orbit.
Milestones of Space Exploration
First Artificial Satellite
First Man in Space
First Robotic Lunar Soft Landing
First Crewed Lunar Orbital Flight
First Crewed Moon Landing
Apollo 11 fulfilled the goal set by President Kennedy in 1961 of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The mission signified a triumph for mankind in general, as well as a major victory for the US in the geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In 1975, in a sign of easing tensions, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project saw the last Apollo spacecraft dock with a Soviet Soyuz and their two crews conduct joint operations in orbit. A legacy that continues until today as the United States, Russia and 16 other countries work together aboard the International Space Station.
Going Beyond the Moon?
Having gone from almost zero to the first crewed Moon landing within less than decade, expectations in the early 1970s were high, that space exploration would continue to reach other planets and moons of our solar system. At the time, sending a man to Mars before the end of the millennium, seemed a reasonable time schedule. Yet on the 50thanniversary of the first Moon landing, in spite of great technological advances, the first crewed Mars landing is still many years in the future. If man ever had any intention of becoming a spacefaring civilization, it is undeniable the whole enterprise has lost steam.
In part this might be due simply to the vastness of space. Compared to a trip to the Moon, Mars, even on closest approach, is still 142 times further out and, say, Saturn on average over 3,000 times farther away. In comparison to interstellar travel even these distances are at best small local trips.
Going into space is, of course, also different than conquering another continent: aside from our very special blue planet, the universe is an extremely inhospitable place for human life.
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Budget cuts after glorious Apollo years have undoubtedly also played a role in halting space exploration. After the successful lunar landings from 1969-1972, crewed missions were limited to low Earth orbit using the Space Shuttle, the first reusable spacecraft. Yet after two fatal accidents and due to high operating costs and limited purpose, the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011.
Meanwhile the exploration of outer space continued with robotic missions. A number of rovers have been sent to and successfully landed on Mars. The data provided by their explorations has advanced our knowledge about the red planet and will turn out handy once a crewed mission sets out.
In 2005 the Cassini-Huygens mission was able to land ESA's (European Space Agency) probe Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, the farthest landing of any probe so far.
And the Voyager probes launched in the late 1970s have in the meantime reached interstellar space, visiting all the outer planets of our solar system on the way.
Though there hasn't been an achievement on par with the Moon landing in the past five decades, space exploration has continued amid ups and downs and new forces are pushing forward: Once the exclusive domain of nations, a number of private companies have emerged. Some, like Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, to enter the (potentially) lucrative market of space tourism, others, like SpaceX with the ambitious goal of settling the red planet (ultimately guaranteeing mankind's survival by becoming a spacefaring civilization).
During the Cold War years the preserve of the two superpowers, a number of other countries have gradually been developing space capabilities: ESA, the European Space Agency, participates in the International Space Station and maintains a major spaceport in Guiana. China in 2003 became the third country to send humans independently into space. India's space agency ISRO has successfully sent orbiters to the Moon (2008) and even to Mars (2013).
Back to the Moon
Our natural satellite hasn't greeted any visitors for five decades now. But a number of missions are in the pipe in the foreseeable future. NASA plans a crewed lunar flyby in 2023 (Artemis 2), using the Space Launch System and further intends to send astronauts, including a woman, to the lunar South Pole by 2024. Going back to the Moon will lay the foundation for eventually going to Mars.
Under China's robotic lunar program in early 2019 the probe Chang'e 4 for the first time ever successfully soft-landed on the far side of the Moon. China also plans to have a space station up by 2020 and has ambitions of a crewed lunar landing beyond that.
SpaceX, a private company founded by Elon Musk, that already supplies the International Space Station, plans to fly its Starship (currently under development) in a circumlunar trajectory around the Moon in 2023. The project is financed by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who will himself board the ship accompanied by a group of artists. The idea of the project #dearMoon is to inspire art through space tourism and thereby promote peace across the world.
Some have even more ambitious a vision: Elon Musk founded SpaceX to colonize Mars and ultimately allow mankind to become a multi-planetary species. Sort of back up plan to guarantee mankind's survival if things should go wrong on Earth one day. It is hard to imagine though, how we could terraform a hostile planet like Mars, if we are unable to prevent ecological disasters on this one.
Are You a Space Buff?
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- How many men have walked on the Moon?
- How far (on average) is the Moon from the Earth?
- 238,855 miles (384,400 km)
- 162,455 miles (261,446 km)
- 854,320 miles (1,374,895 km)
- 42,726 miles (68,761 km)
- Which of these astronauts tragically never made it to the Moon?
- Scott, Worden, Irwin
- Grissom, White, Chaffee
- Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin
- Shepard, Roosa, Mitchell
- How long does a day on the Moon last in (in Earth days)?
- How much would a 200 pound (90.72 kg) person weigh on the Moon?
- 65.27 lbs (29.61 kg)
- 102.05 lbs (46.29 kg)
- 33.07 lbs (15.00 kg)
- 260.32 lbs (188.08 kg)
- Which booster rocket did NASA use for crewed Moon missions?
- Space Launch System
- Space Shuttle
- Saturn V
- How many moon buggies (LRVs) are left on the Moon?
- When did man last walk on the Moon?
- 238,855 miles (384,400 km)
- Grissom, White, Chaffee
- 33.07 lbs (15.00 kg)
- Saturn V
Is it Worth it ?
Space capabilities in low Earth orbit (like launching satellites) have become mandatory for any country playing a major role on the world scene, not least on military grounds. There is, so to say, some sort of benefit to the costs involved. But missions leaving the Earth's orbit are much more challenging and an entirely different matter. Many therefore object to the stratospheric costs of space exploration, suggesting the money could be better spent to solve real-world problems.
Inquiries on how taxpayer money is spent are always a worthy endeavor. It undoubtedly helps that the private sector has entered the domain of space activities. Yet there is another factor that is often overlooked: the huge challenges that need to be overcome in space exploration require entirely new technologies, that often, although first developed for use in space, find their way into appliances of every day lives. From scratch resistant lenses, to CAT scans, insulations systems, memory foam in mattresses, to water purification systems, etc. there are numerous ways in which life in general has been improved thanks to innovations first made in space laboratories.
Who knows whether asteroid mining might one day supply the Earth with essential raw materials? Or, should tourism to the Moon one day become mainstream, who knows what effect it would have on mankind's ethical behavior, seeing planet Earth suspended in space with their own eyes?
The future has always been hard to predict. Yet at the current level of knowledge, there seem to be limits to how far space travel could go, even in the eyes of the greatest optimist looking to the most distant future. Cruising through the galaxies in a StarTrek like Enterprise spaceship will likely have to remain relegated to the realm of science fiction for the time being.
Next Giant Leap
In the meantime things are gradually building up for the next big milestone: man setting foot on Mars. NASA expects to send a crew to the red planet somewhere between 2035-40. If you should happen to be around by then, make sure not to miss the event. And neither all the exciting discoveries along the way.
© 2019 Marco Pompili
Halemane Muralikrishna from South India on August 26, 2019: