Reflections on Apollo 11
“From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we sought for her.
She was a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our lights, our lives — perhaps
a meaning to us — O, a meaning!
Now we have found her in her nest of nigh”
Archibald MacLeish, “Voyage to the Moon” (1969)
On July 20th, 1969, humankind accomplished a feat once thought little more than a faraway dream. The moon has been a part of the human story for as long as humans have been alive. It has long played a pivotal role in our myths. In the Japanese religion of Shinto, their moon god Tsukuyomi, is terribly punished for upsetting his sister, the sun goddess Amaterarsu. His punishment is separation from her, and this results in the division of night and day. Today, the Japanese still pay tribute to the moon in the autumn festival of Tsukimi, where they watch the moon and eat rice dumplings called dango. In China, the legendary Chang’e stole the elixir of life from her tyrant husband, Houyi, and ascended to the moon, becoming its goddess. The Chinese also have an Autumn Moon Festival on the same day as Japan’s, which they celebrate with lanterns and mooncakes. Chang’e and her rabbit companion, Yutu, have since become the symbols of China’s lunar space expeditions. In Ancient Egypt, the moon god, Thoth, represented knowledge and astronomy, because the moon allowed Egyptians to measure time without sunlight. The Egyptians were among the first to recognize the moon’s importance to the advancement of science, and soon, others would as well. India’s Aryabhata the Elder was among the first astronomers to note that moonlight is a reflection of the sunlight. Italy’s Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to observe the moon through a telescope, and found that the moon had mountains and valleys just like the Earth. England’s Isaac Newton discovered the Universal Law of Gravitation, in part, out of a need to explain why the moon revolved around the Earth.
Science also informed fiction. Jules Verne wrote one of the first novels about landing on the moon in 1870 in From The Earth To The Moon. It accurately predicted astronauts being fired into space by a rocket from Florida. As technology advanced, so too did our ability to imagine the plausibility of a moon landing. In 1938, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called “Trends”, which imagined a moon landing occurring in the 1970’s. The tale also predicts that the technology of World War II would spur a religious backlash against scientific discovery. In 1940, Robert A. Heinlein published the short story “Requiem”, in which landing on the moon is an old man’s last wish. In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicted moon bases by the 21st century, which were used to discover the secrets of our origins. Then in 1962, President John F. Kennedy swore that before the decade was out, America would land a man on the moon:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Then the Eagle landed.
The triumphant landing was accomplished by many bright and dedicated patriots, not all of whom can be named. First, those who paved the way. Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier and later trained astronauts for travel. Then there were America’s first astronauts, “The Mercury Seven”, or as Dick Wolf called them, “The Right Stuff.” Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space in 1961. Gus Grissom became the second American in space that same year, but tragically died in the Apollo 1 fire. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. M. Scott Carpenter was the second American to orbit the Earth in that same year. Gordon Cooper, became the first man to sleep in space in 1963, and the first man to make a second orbital flight in 1965. Wally Schirra was the only one of the Seven to serve on three different space programs: Mercury-Atlas 7 in 1962, Gemini 6-A in 1965, and Apollo 7 in 1968. Deke Slayton, who, due to a heart problem, wasn’t cleared to go to space until 1972.
Then there were those who gave the Eagle wings. Margaret Hamilton, the innovative software engineer whose software computers helped land the Eagle safely on the moon. John C. Houbolt, an aerospace engineer who developed the cost-effective Lunar Orbit Rendezvous method of moon landing, which involved having one craft orbit the moon, while another landed on the surface. JoAnn Morgan, Apollo 11's flight controller, who later became the first female senior executive at NASA. Chris Kraft, the founder of NASA’s Mission Control, who oversaw the landing. Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer, who specialized in the boundary layer effects of aerospace vehicles at supersonic speeds. Katherine Johnson, an aerospace technologist who calculated the trajectory, launch window, and emergency backup return landing for Apollo 11. Judy Sullivan, a biomedical engineer who saw to it that the astronauts were healthy enough to fly. Houston’s Rice University, which provided NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, America’s first space science department, and Apollo 11's lunar dust detector. Greg Force, the 10 year old boy who helped fixed an antenna in Guam that allowed the Apollo astronauts to communicate with Mission Control and return home. Then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who convinced Kennedy that landing a man on the moon was necessary to beat the Soviets. And the 400,000 Americans and 20,000 universities and industrial firms that contributed to the Apollo program.
Now we’ve come to the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Collins, who flew the Columbia lunar module that brought the Eagle down and picked it back up. Armstrong and Aldrin, the first men to set foot on the moon. Millions of people around the country and around the world saw what had been accomplished. This matters, because it allowed the public to participate in a moment of history, it allowed everyone with a television to feel as if they were a part of this achievement. Apollo 11 was a voyage where we all truly came together as one people. President Richard Nixon acknowledged Apollo’s wider significance when he told the astronauts by telephone,
“Because of what you have done, the heavens have now become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done.”
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Some of the best immediate commentary on the moon landing was from the science-fiction writers who imagined it. When Walter Cronkite told Arthur C. Clarke that the only feeling that could compare to the moon landing, is being told there would be an end to war, Clarke responded that, “I think this is a step in that direction because this sort of thing is making our stupidities here on Earth seem more and more intolerable, and I think this may be the greatest result of the space program.” CBS then turned to Robert A. Heinlein, who remarked that “This is the greatest event in all the history of the human race up to this time. Today is New Year’s Day of Year One. If we don’t change the calendar, historians will do so. This is our change, our puberty rights, bar-mitzvah, confirmation; change from infancy into adulthood for the human race.” Ray Bradbury told Mike Wallace that “We are God Himself coming awake in the universe,” going on to say that, “This is an effort on the part of mankind to relate himself to the larger universe, and to live forever.”
In his 1989 essay “The Gift of Apollo”, Carl Sagan lamented that the missions of the Space Race were motivated more by “ideological confrontation and nuclear war”, than by scientific discovery, but noted that “Nevertheless, good space science was done. We know now much more about the composition, age and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms.” Indeed, good space science was done. Of the lunar samples taken from the moon, two types of rocks, basalts and breccias, were found. These basalts are at least 3.6 billion years old and were formed from at least two chemically different sources of magma. The breccias were formed from the fragments of meteorites that have bombarded the moon’s surface. These samples contained no evidence for water or life at any point in the moon’s history. A seismometer was deployed to conduct the Passive Seismic Experiment, which measured lunar earthquakes. From these measurements, some major conclusions were made about moon: 1) the moon has a crust, mantle, and core like the Earth 2) most moonquakes occur at 800–1000 meters deep and are less than 2 on the Richter scale 3) based on the attenuation of seismic waves, we know that the interior of the moon is mostly cold, and dry, suggesting that it cooled more rapidly than the Earth.
An aluminum foil sheet was also placed on the moon to study the chemical composition of solar wind, or the particles that the sun emits into space. Earth’s magnetic field prevents these particles reaching the planet’s surface, though they can reach the moon since it is outside of Earth’s magnetic field. The gases helium, neon, and argon were found on the foil. The Lunar Laser Reflector first placed on the moon since Apollo 11 is still used by scientists to this day. By shooting lasers from Earth to that reflector, numerous findings were made: 1) We were able to calculate, with precision, the distance from the Earth to the moon (which is around 240,000 miles) 2) the moon spirals away from the Earth at a rate of 1.5 inches a year 3) the moon’s core is liquid 4) the universal force of gravity is quite stable.
Apollo 11 inspired six more moon missions, though Apollo 13 suffered an oxygen tank explosion and had to make an emergency return. Apollo 12, also in 1969, was a triumph in precision landing by computer, which would allow scientists to make more difficult landings on future missions. On Apollo 14 in 1971, the biggest rock ever retrieved from the moon, “Big Bertha” was taken in for study. In 2019, it was later found that, based on its chemical makeup and mineral composition, the 4 billion year old rock was propelled from the Earth by an asteroid impact. Apollo 14 also had Alan Shepard play the first game of golf on the moon. Apollo 15 in 1971 was one of the more exciting voyages. They found a 4 billion year old piece of the moon’s crust which was dubbed the “Genesis Rock.” This mission was also the first to utilize the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which expanded the reach of lunar exploration for astronauts.
Then there was the famous Galileo Experiment. Galileo theorized that all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of mass, but could never prove why a feather fell at a different rate than a hammer. This is thought to be due to the air resistance in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that, in a vacuum, a feather would fall at the same rate as a hammer. Astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time on the moon’s surface, and sure enough, they fell at the same rate, proving Galileo correct. The most poignant moment of Apollo 15, though, was when a plaque in memory of the Americans and Soviets who died during the Space Race was placed on the moon. It is called the Fallen Astronauts, and it reminds us of the sacrifices that these advances in space exploration demand. Apollo 16 in 1972 was mainly done to explore areas of the moon we had never been before, like the Descartes Highlands. Apollo 17, also of that same year, was our last journey to the moon, and the first to bring along a scientist, Harrison Schmitt. As such, it was, like the previous voyage, primarily scientific in nature, with its collection of vast lunar samples. Though who forget the astronauts singing “I Was Strolling Through the Park One Day?”
There were some, however, who saw Apollo 11 as a waste of money better spent here at home. The day before the launch, civil rights hero, Ralph Abernathy, led a protest march of 25 poor black families to the Kennedy Space Center. He didn’t oppose the moon landing, but rather “the nation’s distorted sense of priorities.” Spoken word artist, Gil Scott-Heron, penned “Whitey On The Moon” in which he says, “I can’t pay no doctor bill / (But Whitey’s on the moon) / Ten years from now I’ll be paying still / (But Whitey’s on the moon).” We hear a similar critique of space programs even to this day. Haven’t we all heard variations of “Why spend money on space programs when we can spend money on X?” Questions like these present a false dilemma. That we can have space or we can have bread. Why not both? Is America so small that she can only do one thing at a time? I pray not. I should note that critics like Abernathy and Scott-Heron do have a point. It doesn’t always feel like the government makes easing poverty the priority it should. I understand that frustration, but I don’t think the solution is to wage attacks against valuable scientific programs. If anything, Apollo 11 reaffirmed the truth that space is a part of who we are.
Some of the technology used in Apollo 11 has gone on to improve life for many Earthlings since. NPR credits Apollo for such things as freeze-dried food, fireproof materials now used in fireman suits, cooling suits for people with multiple sclerosis, and the integrated circuits on a microchip. The Orlando Sentinel credits Apollo for cordless tools, dialysis machines, handheld computers, and even athletic shoes. Not all the benefits were even strictly technological. Americans of color have now gone to space since Apollo, people like Mae Jemison, Guion Bluford, and Franklin Chang Diaz. The Apollo programs also had an effect on the modern environmentalist movement. In particular, the photos “Earthrise” from Apollo 8 and “The Blue Marble” from Apollo 17, in which human beings, for the very first time, saw Earth from the view of the cosmos. We all remember Armstrong’s first words after landing on the moon, but we should also recall Aldrin’s: “Beautiful. Beautiful.” We saw how beautiful, how precious, the Earth is. A green oasis in the dark ocean of space. This was, I think, a turning point for our species, when we began to realize that we were all on the same ship, and that it was the only ship we had. As Sagan wrote in 1989,
“For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see our world from above — the whole Earth, the Earth in color, the Earth as an exquisite white and blue world set against the vast darkness of space. Those images have awakened our slumbering planetary consciousness; they provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet — our only home in all the solar system. They remind us of what is important and what is not.”
While this year marks fifty years since the moon landing, it also marks 75 years since D-Day in 1944. A day when Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate France and the rest of Europe from Nazi Germany. It turned the tide of the war in our favor. The heroes of D-Day saved the world. Of what relevance does D-Day have for Apollo 11? Everything. D-Day, first of all, made us free, as President Franklin Roosevelt said, “They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.” D-Day also reminded us of the need to protect freedom before it is violated, as President Ronald Reagan said, “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” Apollo 11 brought the mission of D-Day into the stars.
Our technological achievement revealed, in part, the value of the civilization that D-Day preserved. Roosevelt also hoped that, after peace was achieved, we would reap “the just rewards of their honest toil.” And the victory of Apollo 11 is but one of many such rewards. While we should honor the Soviets who made advances in the Space Race, let’s not forget that they were part of a communist police state that deprived their people of freedom and food. We could not let totalitarianism set the standard for space. While the moon landing was, no doubt, a victory for the human race, it was also a victory for America. When we planted that flag, we did not conquer the moon for ourselves, but declared that the exploration of space should remain peaceful, scientific, and free. That is the democratic standard, as Kennedy remarked in his “Moon Speech”,
“For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”
This is why I am grateful Reagan never implemented “Star Wars” and why I am concerned by Trump’s formation of a “Space Force.” I recognize that some of the nations who intend to advance in space: China, North Korea, and Iran, are some of the most brutal regimes on the planet, but people, not least of all scientists and astronauts, are far greater than the cruelty of their governments. The militarization of space may well be inevitable to preserve free and equal exploration, but only as a last possible resort. As even Reagan conceded in his commemoration to D-Day, “we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation.” It would be a shame if all our terrible conflicts from Earth were brought up into the stars. We should continue to uphold the example of the International Space Station, where astronauts of all nations can peacefully work together to benefit all of humanity.
The great conflict of this century may be between those who see us as one people and those who do not. Climate change cannot be dealt with by one nation, but by all. The same willpower that pushed us to the moon can also push us away from carbon. Just as the astronauts of Apollo made us first see each other as one world, we must begin to truly act as such. The stars are our inheritance. We must make ourselves worthy of them. Let us continue our journey to Mars and beyond, but may we do so with justice in our minds and charity in our hearts.