Apollo Anniversary: Moon Landing "Inspired World"
for National Geographic News
|July 16, 2004|
On July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. ET, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the "Eagle" onto the surface of the moon and said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Thirty-five years later, Steven Dick, NASA's chief historian at the space agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., said that a thousand years from now, that step may be considered the crowning achievement of the 20th century.
"Putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation, but also the world," Dick said. "The 1960s were a tumultuous time in the U.S., and the moon landing showed what could be accomplished at a time when much else was going wrong."
Armstrong's step was the culmination of a goal set forth by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. In a speech before a joint session of Congress, the President had announced his objective of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" before the end of the decade.
The goal set in motion Project Apollo. Armstrongtogether with astronauts Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.,lifted off on the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:32 a.m. ET.
About 76 hours later, the spacecraft entered lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the lunar module, known as the Eagle, for descent to the lunar surface. There, it landed in a region called the Sea of Tranquility at 4:18 p.m. ET.
Armstrong took his historic step six hours later, as millions of people around the world watched on television. The landing drew the largest television audience for any live event up until that time.
Jeffrey Bennett, a noted astronomy teacher and writer, said that accomplishing Kennedy's goal gave society great hope for the future.
"There are many ways to show people the great possibilities of the future, but I'd argue that the visibility of the moon in the sky [is] more powerful than any other single source of inspiration," said Bennet, who is affiliated with the Center for Astrophysics and Astronomy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The inspiration provided by the goal of sending humans to the moon is credited for laying the groundwork for, and making widely available, a host of technologies that society depends on today.
As an example, Dick points to the integrated circuit, commonly referred to as a computer chip. The Apollo Guidance Computer, used for the Apollo program, was the largest single consumer of integrated circuits between 1961 and 1965.
"NASA did not invent the integrated circuit, but a good case could be made that it played a major role in making the integrated circuit commercially viable," he said.
In addition to encouraging the push toward the development of the personal computer, Bennett also credits the Apollo program for sowing the seeds of the Internet.
"I wouldn't attribute the technological advances solely to Apollo, but I do think that the inspiration of 'we're going to the moon' made things happen much more quickly than they would have happened otherwise," Bennett said.
Once on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two and a half hours exploring the surface. They collected 47 pounds (21 kilograms) of surface material to be returned to Earth for analysis.
Over the next several years, space scientists continued to visit and study the moon, learning about its composition, age, and rocks and about the similarities between the moon and Earth. Extensive testing found no evidence for life, past or present, on the moon.
Active human exploration of the moon came to an end on December 19, 1972, when Apollo 17 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, ending a 12-day mission.
"The moon program was a race, and when we won that race, interest dwindled from the political point of view," Dick said. "But not from the scientific point of view. Scientists remained eager to learn even more."
The continuing interest in the moon, according to Dick, is one of the reasons President George W. Bush's Vision for U.S. Space Explorationoutlined in a speech at NASA headquarters on January 14is so important.
The vision, which has been widely criticized for its funding, appropriateness, and time line, calls for a return to the moon no later than 2020. The idea is to foster further scientific study of Earth's satellite and to use it as a stepping stone to get to Mars and beyond.
"The new space vision will perhaps have an even broader impact than the moon, and certainly a more sustained one," Dick said. "In addition to technologies that will be developed, the new space vision carries on the long American tradition of exploration in the spirit of Lewis and Clark."
Bennett believes that, if properly funded, humans could be back on the moon much sooner than 2020. He said the inspiration gleaned from going back to the moon and having a permanent moon base could even help foster world peace.
"Having people of all nationalities and cultures working together on the moon would send an incredible message to those trying to get along down here," he said.
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