Celebrating 50 years since mankind’s giant leap
Will humans ever live on the Moon? Tomorrow, it will be 50 years since the Apollo 11 astronauts began their historic journey to the Moon. Now, the world wants to go back — this time to stay.
Fifty years ago, millions around the world were about to watch three men launch from Cape Kennedy in Florida to embark on a mission to the Moon. The days that followed would change Earth forever.
The Saturn V rocket was 100m tall. Most of that was just for holding fuel: it burned 20 tonnes of propellant per second during launch.
Once the spacecraft was in orbit, it did one loop around Earth and then set off on the 239,000 mile journey to the Moon.
Inside the Command Module, the astronauts were cramped into a space roughly the size of a small car. There was the stoic Neil Armstrong; the brilliantly clever Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and mild-mannered Michael Collins, the mission’s pilot.
After reaching the Moon on 20 July, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module known as the Eagle. While Collins stayed in orbit, his two colleagues began their descent. It was a tense journey. Armstrong took control for the final moments, overriding the computer to avoid crashing into a crater.
“You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue,” remarked fellow astronaut Charlie Duke in Houston, once Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the Moon. “We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Armstrong was first to step onto the surface. It was then that he uttered some of the most famous words ever spoken: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was the culmination of eight years and $19 billion of work. NASA employed around 400,000 people on the Apollo space programme, at a time when computers were still relatively new. On board the spacecraft, the “Apollo Guidance Computer” navigated and landed using just four kilobytes of memory — about 250,000 times less than an average smartphone today.
As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of its greatest achievement, it is also looking ahead to its future: a permanent Moon base. The idea is that this would allow astronauts easier access to the rest of the solar system. Next stop: Mars.
This time, private companies are racing to be involved. “It’s time to go back to the Moon,” said Amazon founder Jeff Bezos earlier this year. “This time to stay,” he added.
One small step?
Will we ever live on the Moon? Certainly, it will be difficult: there is ice at the South Pole for drinking water, but no air to breathe. Temperatures swing from 127C to –173C. “Day” and “night” last for two weeks at a time. Perhaps humanity should focus on saving Earth before it moves elsewhere.
Then again, humans have always had a desire to explore. The Moon is the next logical place to go, and the perfect “pitstop” to help propel us even further. When Armstrong first walked on the Moon, many on Earth assumed that it was the beginning of a new era of interplanetary life. We should not let them down.
- You have been offered the chance to be one of the first people to live on the Moon. Would you take it?
- Is the Moon landing humanity’s greatest achievement to date?
- The European Space Agency wants to establish an international “Moon Village” by around 2050. Have a go at designing this. Before you start, think about what a community would need to survive on the Moon.
- “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth,” Armstrong later said of his view from the Moon. “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Write your own poem or short story imagining the view for yourself.
Some People Say...
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”Carl Sagan, US astronomer and science writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The Apollo 11 mission launched on 16 July 1969. The Eagle landed on the Moon on 20 July. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent two-and-a-half hours walking on the Moon’s surface. There were five more Moon landings over the next three years, with the last mission taking place in December 1972. Of the 12 people who have walked on the Moon, all are American men and only four are still alive.
- What do we not know?
- When humans will walk on the Moon again. President Trump wants NASA to land the first woman on the Moon before 2024, but we do not know whether it can achieve this. Russia wants to land people on the Moon by 2030, while China is looking at around 25 years from now. However, space exploration is notoriously difficult and deadlines are often missed.
- Cape Kennedy
- Named after US President John F Kennedy, who first set NASA the mission of walking on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. He was assassinated before the mission was completed.
- Saturn V
- The rocket remains the largest and most powerful ever built.
- The rocket used several hundred thousand litres of liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and kerosene.
- Home of the Manned Space Centre (now the Johnson Space Centre) where NASA’s spaceflight training, research and mission control is based.
- A man
- Although many at home heard: “One small step for man”, Armstrong remembered saying the grammatically correct version of the phrase: “One small step for a man”. Enhanced recordings of the moment suggest that he is right.
- Apollo Guidance Computer
- This was considered the smallest and most advanced “miniature” computer of its time. Back at NASA’s space centre there were five IMB 360 Model 75 computers — hulking machines about as tall as a person.