The Moon: 50 Years Later

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on July 23, 2019
Traver Kennedy
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“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

This past Saturday, as we observed the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, the summer when it all happened lingered vividly in my memory. It was the evening of July 20, 1969, that my father and I followed the Apollo 11 lunar landing in front of our 12-inch black and white television set. Our imaginations were ablaze as we watched the astronauts through the grainy video. It was a great moment, not just in American history, but for all of humanity when Neil Armstrong proclaimed the phrase that captured the collective effort that took us there, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The six lunar missions of NASA’s Apollo Program not only enabled us to set foot on and explore a new world for the first time, but they also enabled us to advance understanding of our own planet’s history and genesis. The long 47-year hiatus since the last Apollo 17 mission in 1972 is about to end as we prepare to go back to the moon. This time though, it will be a collective effort that will take us there in a manner reflective of today’s international cooperation between government agencies, and private and public organizations.

This week we honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and humanity’s quest to go back there. We also celebrate our neighbors who are carrying on the proud tradition of transforming space science in many different ways here at the Kennedy Space Center.

The first three: Michael Collins, command module pilot; Neil A. Armstrong, commander; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot.

Lunar Landings

Within three years following the historic Apollo 11 landing, a total of 12 astronauts walked (and in some instances, drove) across the moon’s surface. These Apollo Program astronauts included: Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (November 1969), Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (February 1971), Apollo 15’s David Scott and James Irwin (July 1971), Apollo 16’s John Young and Charles Duke (April 1972), and Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (December 1972).

Their pioneering efforts in collecting samples and conducting wide-ranging experiments―from lunar geology to seismology―enabled us to not only understand the environment and interior of the moon better but that of Earth itself. Their work remains very relevant even today, half a century later. For instance, the analysis of the rocks they brought back allowed us to conclude that both the moon and Earth formed at the same time, from the same material. In January, NASA’s Johnson Space Center conducted a study on these rocks and confirmed that the moon, in fact, formed from the Earth. Extremetech provides an interesting account of their finding: “The oxygen isotopic ratio found on the moon is essentially identical to Earth. Oxygen isotope ratios, which we can measure with great precision, are different for each body in the solar system. The only reason for the Earth and moon to align in the way that they do is if they are made from the same “stuff.”

This month’s Scientific American also pays homage to Apollo’s scientific legacy stating, “We are still learning from the samples collected by the Apollo missions—half a century of progress in instrumentation is allowing the extraction of more accurate and detailed data. Without the data from the rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts, we could have been satisfied with an incomplete, or even erroneous, idea for how the moon was created.”

December 1972 was the last Apollo 17 mission. No person has walked on the moon, or any other planetary body, ever since. Fortunately, that’s all about to change. NASA is working to return by 2024; this time, they aim to put the first woman onto the moon’s surface. There is also a groundswell of public-private cooperation among governments and  commercial organizations to make lunar travel a near-term reality.

The Moon Village

In a world inundated by conflicting, international views on most topics, there is refreshing consensus and alignment around one thing: the time to go back to the moon has finally arrived. The key difference between now and then is that today’s space quest is a more collaborative effort between governments and organizations to go back and achieve several practical goals. Among the myriad initiatives calling for collaborative efforts are the establishment of a base or “a space gateway” to support space manufacturing, mining operations, tourism, and to send a mission to Mars.

One approach for getting to the moon in an organized, truly international way is an initiative led by the European Space Agency (ESA) called Moon Village. According to Astronomy magazine, the ESA has already spent “almost five years quietly planning a permanent lunar settlement. And while building it may take a few decades, if done right, it could serve the entire world—sightseers included—for many more decades to come.” ESA’s Director General explains, “A Moon Village shouldn’t just mean some houses, a church, and a town hall. This Moon Village should mean partners from all over the world, contributing to this community with robotic and astronaut missions and support communication satellites.” The lunar settlement that we will see rising on the moon’s surface over the next couple of decades will mark humanity’s permanent presence on the Moon, thereby, giving us a base, outside of Earth’s gravity and atmosphere, from which to launch further missions across our solar system.

Rallying international cooperation for the idea is Moon Village Association, which “comprises approximately 220 members from more than 39 countries and 25 Institutional members around the globe, representing a diverse array of technical, scientific, cultural and interdisciplinary fields.” The organization fosters cooperation for existing or planned global moon exploration programs, be they public or private initiatives. In this sense, one can say that it takes a village to make a village.

A Space Coast Renaissance

The next-generation of pioneers that can take us back to the moon is converging around the Kennedy Space Center. Because of the area’s rich history of innovation and legacy of exploration, there is a new critical mass gaining serious momentum along Florida’s Space Coast―including Astrotech Space Operations, SpaceX, Blue Origin, OneWeb, Moon Express, Firefly Aerospace, United Launch Alliance, and Relativity.

The stellar line-up of companies clustered here is due, in large part, to the visionary efforts of Space Florida, an aerospace economic development organization with the goal of “attracting and expanding the next generation of space industry businesses.” Our neighbors are among the dozens of companies working on the technologies that will enable civilization to keep moving forward, both here on Earth, and beyond.

Thousands of entrepreneurial men and women at the Kennedy Space Center and all over the world are ready to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin whom I so vividly recall watching with my father that summer evening 50 years ago. Tranquility base: new human crews will be landing again soon.

 

Photo courtesy of NASA. License-free in the Public Commons.
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