It’s hard to believe, for those of us of a certain age, but July 20 marked the 35th anniversary of the first manned moon landing (and, as it happens, the 35th anniversary of my 10th birthday, in case you’re wondering just what “a certain age” is).
In January, President George W. Bush called for the U.S. to return to the moon, with both robots and humans, and go on to Mars. Specifically, he called for a new human expedition to the moon as early as 2015, and no later than 2020.
A similar speech by President John F. Kennedy to Congress on May 25, 1961, launched the U.S. on the road to the moon the first time around. Kennedy said the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the time, the technology didn’t exist; but just eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon with the now-famous words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Apollo 11 was boosted into space by a 30-story-tall Saturn V rocket at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969. The Apollo spacecraft consisted of a cylindrical service module, containing a rocket motor and fuel, a cone-shaped command module containing life-support, controls, communications equipment and three astronauts, and the bug-like lunar excursion module (LEM). Besides Armstrong, a civilian, Apollo 11’s crew consisted of Air Force officers Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins.
After launch, the astronauts briefly orbited the Earth, until the last stage of the Saturn V ignited and boosted them toward the moon at just under 40,000 kilometres an hour. Three days later, the service module’s engine fired, braking the spacecraft and putting it into orbit around the moon. After several hours of preparation, the LEM (nicknamed Eagle), separated from the command module (Columbia), and Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent to the surface, leaving Collins in the command module.
Computers piloted the Eagle down to within a few kilometres of the surface; then, seeing rocks and craters covering the landing site, Armstrong took over the controls himself, burning the engines an extra 70 seconds (and using up almost all the fuel) to carry the LEM past the danger zone.
At 4:17:41 p.m. EDT on July 20, the LEM touched down. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” said Armstrong.
Hundreds of millions of people watched on live television six hours later as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. (In fact, one of the few people who couldn’t watch was poor old Michael Collins–he had to make do with radio.)
The astronauts spent 2 1/2 hours on the surface, inspecting the spacecraft, placing scientific equipment, gathering rock samples, and planting a U.S. flag, stiffened with wire to look like it was waving in the breeze. After a rest period (although neither astronaut slept much) they returned to lunar orbit (leaving the lower half of the LEM behind), rendezvoused with Collins and then returned to Earth in Columbia, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.
Five more Apollo missions landed on the moon. And then the missions stopped. No human has set foot on another world since 1972.
I sincerely hope that President Bush’s vision for renewed exploration of the moon means that will change. But even if NASA doesn’t get its act together, the moon is going to be a busy place in the near future.
The European Space Agency launched its SMART-1 lunar probe in September. Once it arrives at the moon in November 17 (it’s using slow-but-steady ion propulsion to get there) it will look into permanently shadowed lunar craters at the moon’s south pole to scan for possible water ice–a future source of oxygen, water, and rocket fuel.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has two lunar missions planned: Lunar-A, which will hurl ground-penetrating instrument packages down on the surface, and Selene, which will gather scientific data on the moon’s origin and evolution.
India is preparing Chardrayaan-1, which will carry out high-resolution imaging using visible, near-infrared, X-ray and low-energy gamma ray wavelengths.
China has a three-step plan, beginning with a lunar orbiter, followed by an automated lander, and finally an automated lander that will return samples to Earth. After that, they may consider a manned mission.
Reasons to go to the moon include scientific research, technological development, and national pride. An even better reason is that the moon is the logical low-gravity, raw-material-laden stepping stone for missions to the rest of the solar system.
So…humans on the Moon again by Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary?
I hope so. From the point of view of this erstwhile 10-year-old, we’ve wasted too much time already.