A child of Apollo

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Science  19 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6450, pp. 203
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6770

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I was 11 years old when my neighborhood gathered to watch Apollo 11 transport human beings to the surface of the Moon for the first time. We clustered around a black-and-white television when, at dusk in California, Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps and said, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” This issue of Science celebrates the 50th anniversary of this landmark event. The path that led to this success transformed our understanding of humankind's place in the universe and demonstrated the power of an audacious goal in driving technology forward.

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States focused on the need for engineers and scientists to keep up technologically with the Soviet Union. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed that the United States “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.” The ambitious National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project had three phases—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I first became aware of the space program with the last of the Mercury flights and was fully engaged by the time of the first crewed Gemini launch in March 1965. I remember watching the launches, splashdowns, and the spacewalk of Ed White tethered to Gemini 4 in June 1965. Gemini model kits soon joined my list of desired presents. As a child, the progress of the program seemed exciting but inevitable, particularly given the confident attitudes portrayed by the astronauts and NASA staff. I recall being shocked by the horrible fire in a sealed command module that killed three astronauts as they prepared for the first Apollo mission in January 1967. NASA spent a year extensively redesigning the command module, focusing on safety, possible modes of failure, and reliability. In December 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon for the first time. This vantage point offered a new perspective of Earth, captured by an iconic color photograph of our home planet rising over the lunar surface. Such pictures depicted a unified, blue, cloud-decorated planet without national boundaries. Seven months later, after two additional flights, Apollo 11 headed to the Moon with the goal of placing two astronauts on the lunar surface. After a dramatic journey to find a suitable landing site, the lunar lander settled into the lunar soil and, less than 7 hours later, Neil Armstrong took his famous first step.

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The bootprint on the lunar surface was made by astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission.


The technology that enabled the Apollo missions was incredibly impressive at the time but is remarkably primitive by today's standards. The guidance computer was less powerful than a cheap, modern hand calculator. The successes of the Moon missions were primarily triumphs of rocket engineering (rather than rocket science). Nonetheless, the Moon missions enabled many new scientific directions, beginning with studies of the samples from the lunar surface. More experiments were performed on subsequent missions, facilitated by roving vehicles, setting the stage for unmanned rovers that are still exploring the surface of Mars today. Increasingly sophisticated scientific instruments have been built for probing the structures, atmospheres, and surfaces of other planets and various objects in our Solar System. Some people are now actively discussing possible missions involving human passengers to the Moon and then on to Mars. Such endeavors have the potential to capture the public's imagination but, as these are contemplated, it is important to articulate clearly the benefits (and challenges) of including oxygen-breathing, waste-producing, radiation-sensitive human beings along with robotic and computer systems that are now so powerful. If a major goal is to develop technologies for future human space travel, including astronauts may make sense. However, if the goal is scientific exploration, robotic extensions of humans offer many advantages; we can continue to make giant leaps for mankind with all the human steps occurring on Earth.

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