Monday, July 20, 2009

The 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing


It was forty years ago today that man first set foot on the moon. Today we tend to take space travel for granted. After all, we have been exploring space for nearly fifty years now. John Glenn first orbited the Earth in 1962. The space shuttle programme is over thirty years old now. Russia's MIR space station has existed for nearly twenty five years. Since 1998 construction on the the International Space Station has been taking place, a joint effort by several different nations. For many people space travel must nearly seem routine today.

This certainly was not the case on July 20, 1969. Both NASA and the Soviet Space Programme were only a little over ten years old. It was only in 1961 that President John F. Kennedy set the goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade. That NASA actually accomplished this at all is a major accomplishment; that they did it in eight years is extraordinary.

The Apollo Programme Gets Underway

It was on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union launched the first man made satellite, a tiny object (only 23 inches in diameter) called Sputnik I. The Soviet's accomplishment spurred the United States into action with regards to space exploration. It was on July 29, 1956 that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, was established when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. It was in 1960 that NASA first conceived a programme that would ultimately take man to the moon. It was on September 1, 1960 that the Apollo Project Office was formed. On May 25, 1961, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy set the goal of placing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. NASA's Apollo programme suddenly became the nation's top priority.

It was on January 10, 1962 that NASA announced plans to build the Saturn C-5 rocket (later renamed the Saturn V), a rocket that would be powerful enough to take man to the moon. By 1966 NASA felt ready to launch their first mission in the Apollo programme. Unfortunately, on January 27, 1967, during a test and training exercise, the command module of Apollo 1 caught fire and was destroyed, killing astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee. This resulted in an exensive redesign of the Apollo command module. Although the mission never left Earth, it remained "Apollo 1" at the request of the widows of the astronauts. Strangely enough, there would be no missions officially named "Apollo 2" or "Apollo 2." The next mission would be deemed "Apollo 4." Taking place on November 9, 1967, it was an unmanned flight and the first flight of the Saturn V rocket. Apollo 5, taking place on January 22, 1968, was an unmanned flight of the Lunar Module. Apollo 6, taking place on April 4, 1968, was the second test of the Saturn V rocket.

It was with Apollo 7 that NASA resumed manned Apollo flights. Launched on October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 was essentially a test flight. It was the first NASA mission in which three astronauts took part. It was also hoped that the mission would rebuild confidence in NASA after the Apollo 1 disaster. The mission of Apollo 7 was simple. It was to orbit the Earth for as long as there was enough oxygen and other consumables on board and for as long as it was safe. The mission ultimately lasted eleven days and proved the worthiness of the Apollo programme. Apollo 8 would be an even more daring mission. Launched on December 21, 1968, the mission would see the first time that a spacecraft achieved sufficient velocity to escape the Earth's orbit, the first to orbit another celestial body (the Moon), and the first to escape another celestial body's orbit to return to Earth. The historical significance of Apollo 8 was not lost on either NASA or the media. It became the most covered NASA mission since John Glenn had orbited Earth in 1962. Even the Soviets were impressed, with Boris Nikolaevich Petrov, head of the Soviet Intercosmos programme, describing the flight as "...outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology." Guesstimates are that one fourth of the population of the Earth saw Apollo 8's Christmas Eve transmission during its ninth orbit around the Moon. Its most famous legacy may be the picture of the Earth rising over the Moon, taken on their forth orbit around the satellite.

The next two missions, Apollo 9 and Apollo 10, were manned missions that included the Lunar Module necessary for landing on the moon. With Apollo 9 and 10 successful, NASA determined that with Apollo 11 it was ready to attempt what would become its greatest achievement, and possibly the greatest achievement in the history of the man: landing on the moon.

The Apollo 11 Mission

With Apollo 11, NASA took no chances with Apollo 11. Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. had flown in space missions before. It was only the second time that NASA used an all veteran crew, the first being Apollo 8. While he had served in the Navy, Neil Armstrong was no longer a military man when he joined NASA. With Gemini 8 he became the first American civilian in space. Michael Collins was an Air Force Major when he flew aboard Gemini 10. By Apollo 11 he was a Lieutenant Colonel. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was a Major in the Air Force when he took part in Gemini 12. By Apollo 11 he was a Colonel.

It was Michael Collins who designed the famous patch for the Apollo 11 mission. It was important to Collins that the patch represent a "...peaceful lunar landing by the United States." He then decided upon an eagle holding an olive branch in its beak landing upon the Moon. NASA worried that the eagle looked too much like a symbol of war because of its talons, so they moved the olive branch from its beak to its talons. They also changed the Roman numeral XI to the numeral 11, thinking this would be more universally understood by the nations of the world.

The command module of Apollo 11 bore the call sign of Columbia, a reference to the name of the United States of America used in poetry and song. The lunar module bore the call sign of Eagle, after the national bird of the United States of America. Apollo 11 was launched atop a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969 at 9:32 AM Eastern Time, 10:32 Central. It entered Earth's orbit only twelve minutes. It was on July 19, 1969 that Apollo 11 entered the Moon's orbit. It was after thirty orbits around the Moon that the crew of Apollo 11 finally spotted their landing site, the Sea of Tranquillity. It was then on July 20, 1969 that Eagle separated from Columbia and began the descent towards the Moon.

The descent did not take place without a hitch. The Lunar Module's navigation and guidance computer issued several alarms, which computer engineer Jack Garman at Mission Control in Houston determined were only "executive overflows" caused by the computer's inability to process all of its tasks in real time. Another problem arose when the computer was directing Eagle to land in an area filled with boulders. Neil Armstrong corrected took control and landed on the Moon at 4:18 PM Eastern, 3:18 PM Central. Unfortunately, Eagle only had about 25 seconds of fuel left after the landing.

It was Buzz Aldrin who speak the first words from the Moon's surface, "Mode control - -both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm - off. 413 is in"--words related to the Lunar Module's navigation. It was afterwards that Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words, "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." This caused momentary confusion at Mission Control, thrown off guard by Armstrong's shift from Eagle (the call sign while the Lunar Module was in flight) to Tranquillity Base (the call sign used after it had landed). Once Mission Control realised Eagle had landed, they were very relieved.

Aldrin and Armstrong had been scheduled to sleep for six hours after the landing, but thinking they would not be able to sleep they decided to forego it. They then made preparations to leave the Lunar Module. It was at 10:56 Eastern Time, 9:56 Central, that Neil Armstrong began his descent to the Moon's surface. As he was almost ready to step onto the Moon's surface, he described its dust as "...fine and almost like a powder." Upon stepping onto the surface of the Moon, Armstrong uttered the famous words, That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong then became the first man to set foot on the Moon. Aldrin followed Armstrong, describing the Moon's surface as "Magnificent desolation."

The astronauts observed that walking on the Moon was very easy, even easier than the simulations they had gone through in training. While on the Moon Armstrong took pictures of the Lunar Module so engineers could better judge its condition after landing on the Moon. He also collected soil samples and panned the Moon's surface with a television camera. Aldrin and Armstrong planted the American flag on the Lunar Surface and then spoke with President Richard M. Nixon through a radio/telephone transmission. Nixon referred to the phone call as "...the most historic phone call ever made from the White House."

While on the surface of the Moon, Aldrin and Armstrong were expected to complete many tasks. The astronauts performed what is called the Solar Wind Composition Experiment, an experiment meant to determine the chemicals composing solar winds. They also collected more soil samples as well as samples of lunar rocks. The astronauts set up Laser Ranging Retroreflector array, which would accurately measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon. They also set up the Passive Seismic Experiment, meant to monitor seismic activity on the Moon.

With the lunar mission a success, Aldrin and Armstrong's next concern would be to return to Earth. The astronauts once more boarded Eagle, along with the various samples they had collected. When entering Eagle, Aldrin accidentally broke the circuit breaker which the main engine used for lifting off from the Moon. NASA was worried that this might keep the engine from firing, effectively stranding the astronauts on the Moon. Fortunately, a felt tip pen was enough to flip the switch. The astronauts settle down to sleep, and after around seven hours they were awakened to leave the Moon. At 1:54 PM Eastern Time, 12:54 noon Central, that Eagle lifted off. They then rejoined Columbia and started their way back to Earth. It was on July 24, 1969 that Columbia splashed down east of Wake Island and south of Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

The Legacy of Apollo 11 in Pop Culture

It is difficult to determine the impact of Apollo 11 on Anglo-American pop culture. Much of this problem is due to the fact that well before 1969 the space programme had already had an enormous impact on pop culture in the United States. This can easily be seen in the television shows of the era. Many sitcoms of the time, from Gilligan's Island to Please Don't Eat the Daisies, had episodes which touched upon space in some way. At least two sitcoms dealt with space directly. The main character of My Favorite Martian, Uncle Martin (Ray Walston), was a space traveller from Mars. I Dream of Jeannie dealt directly with the space programme, the master of the genie named Jeannie (Barbara Eden) being Captain (later Major) Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman), an astronaut for NASA. In the mid-Sixties there were two space adventure shows, Star Trek and Lost in Space. In addition to television, the space programme would have an impact on everything from food (Pillsbury's "Space Food Sticks") to toys (Mattel's famous Major Matt Mason action figure). The movies were a bit slow to capitalise on the popularity of the space programme, probably due to the fact that there had been a substantial cycle towards sci-fi movies in the Fifties (which produced movies ranging from Destination Moon to Forbidden Planet). Eventually, even the movies would succumb to the popularity of the space programme. Doris Day's character in The Glass Bottom Boat worked for NASA. Planet of the Apes used a space mission as a means of tossing its characters forward in time. 2001: A Space Odyssey portrayed a world where space travel was part of every day life.

While it is hard to gauge the impact of Apollo 11 on pop culture because NASA had already had such a large impact on it, the lunar landing would have a few immediate effects on pop culture. David Bowie's song "Space Oddity" was rush released on July 11, 1969 to coincide with the Apollo 11 lunar mission. In the United Kingdom it would even be used in BBC's coverage of the moon landing. It gave Bowie his first hit in the United Kingdom, reaching #5 on the charts.

While there can be little doubt that Planet of the Apes and 2001: a Space Odyssey started a new cycle in film towards sci-fi that would last into the early Seventies, it seems possible that Apollo 11 may bear some responsibility in this too. On October 20, 1969, Hammer Films released the space western Moon Zero Two. While the movie was meant to capitalise on the popularity of 2001: a Space Odyssey, one must wonder if the timing if its release had to do with Apollo 11. Sadly, it did not do well at the box office. The film Marooned, based on the 1964 novel by Martin Caidin, was released on November 10, 1969, just four months after the Apollo 11 mission and four days before the launch of Apollo 12. Based in part on actual NASA sketches from the Apollo Applications Programme, the movie became a hit in a large part because of the missions. Released the following day was Dopplegänger (also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), which sought to capitalise on the first Moon Landing with the tagline, "Man has conquered the moon with the epic Apollo 11 flight! Now take another momentous journey!"

Another immediate effect of the Apollo Moon Landing would be on the drink Tang. Tang had first been used by NASA during the Gemini programme. It was not used on Apollo 11, but Tang would take advantage of the lunar missions nonetheless. The moon began figuring prominently in their adverts. In fact, Tang would even offer a toy Lunar Rover (first used on Apollo 15) in the early Seventies. The Apollo programme would also have an impact on other products as well. In 1970 Avon manufactured what they called Moon Flight: the Game, which was basically a bottle of shampoo in the shape of the Apollo Command module and Lunar module. AMT issued an Apollo 11 model kit that included both the Command Module and the Lunar Module. Several other toys capitalising on the success of Apollo 11 were also made during the period.

While it is difficult to determine the immediate impact of Apollo 11 on Anglo-American pop culture, its lasting impact is easier to see. On the Seventies sci-fi series Space 1999, the Eagle Transporters may owe their name to the Eagle lunar module. Based upon those conspiracy theorists who, against all reason, believe none of the Apollo missions ever happened, was the movie Capricorn One. Released in 1978, the movie dealt with a government conspiracy to fake the first landing on Mars.

More recently, Apollo 11 itself was dramatised in the 1996 television movie Apollo 11, the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, and the soon to be released film Moonshot. The 2008 animated movie Fly Me the Moon portrayed a highly fictionalised account of three flies who make it to the Moon with Apollo 11. The Apollo 11 mission has been referenced in everything from the movie Independence Day to the TV show Futurama to the TV show My Hero. Perhaps the most lasting effect of Apollo 11 may be the continued popularity of space oriented motion pictures. While much of this may be due to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is probably no coincidence that the past forty years have seen movies ranging from 1972's Silent Running to this year's Moon (directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones).

Regardless of its impact on pop culture, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing has had a huge impact on history, one that we forty years later may not yet fully understand. The most immediate effect was that it was the Apollo 11 mission inspired many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to pursue careers in science. Apollo 11 also provided a large number of contributions in science. Through the still operative Laser Ranging Retroreflector array we not only have precise measurements of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, but even in the Moon's orbit. Through the samples of soil and rocks taken from the Moon, we have not only learned a great deal about the Moon, but the Earth itself. The space programme which led to Apollo 11, the Apollo 11 mission itself, and the subsequent Apollo and space shuttle missions have led to advances in fields ranging from medicine to technology.

The most lasting impact of Apollo 11 may be the knowledge that we can explore beyond the Earth. While most of the past forty years NASA has occupied itself with space shuttle missions and robotic missions to Mars and elsewhere, NASA has plans to return to the Moon and even to set up a permanent base there. It is only next month that NASA will test the new Ares rocket, which will take astronauts back to the Moon. This could happen as soon as the next decade. Sometime after 2030 there are plans for man to land on Mars. While there are still those who maintain the Apollo programme was a big waste of money. I myself see it as only the beginning of man's exploration of space. In that case, Apollo 11 is truly one of the most pivotal events in human history.

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