Monday, July 20, 2009

One Giant Leap For Mankind - 40 Years Later

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing carried out by the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module Eagle onto the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. While they took photographs, set up experimental equipment, and gathered rock and soil samples, their fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited overhead in the command module Columbia.

Forty years later, there is an "Apollo 11" greasy spoon resturant here in Toronto at the corner of Bathurst and Dupont. This leads me to wonder whether the "Obama Cafe" on the Danforth will still be here by the middle of this century. The juxtaposition of restaurant names here in Toronto will be matched by a meeting of the actual people in Washington, where President Obama is scheduled to meet with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins later today.

Today, there are 13 astronauts on the International Space Station -- a record setting number of people in one place in space, and incidentally, one more person than the twelve men who to this point have walked on the moon. Two of those thirteen people currently in space -- Robert Thirst and Julie Payette -- are Canadians. But there are no people in high orbit, or the moon, or interplanetary space.

Photo credit NASA - Endeavour approaches the ISS on Friday, July 17. Photo taken by an Expedition 20 astronaut during the approach phase to check for possible heat shield damage.

After 1972, the Apollo 18 spacecraft was redesignated for use on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Apollo 19 through 21, which included the setup for a rudimentary moonbase, were cancelled by the Nixon administration and never flown.

There are strong indications that the NASA Constellation program has fundamental design complexities and problems that may make it difficult or even impossible for NASA and its international partners to implement and use as the platform for the return to the moon, and beyond. Also, the Constellation vision is an enormous step backward in terms of technology concept. The decisions that are made now matter, and will affect whether or not there continues to be a viable human presence in space.

In the meantime, there has been a lot of 40th anniversary coverage over the last few days (click on individual links to open):

Apollo 11 mission recreated on web -- report and mission site

The debate about whether it was all worth it began even before the moon landings. Perhaps the major problem with space exploration to date is that there has been no true viable long term purpose. John F. Kennedy provided the lunar landing objectiveb when he stated in a speech that he elieved
"that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

But even Kennedy did not look beyond the need in the 1960s to "beat" the Russians. Elsewhere, he is on record saying to then-NASA Administrator James Webb
"This is important for political reasons, international political reasons, and this is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race. Otherwise, we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space."

Buzz Aldrin's rap video, intended to make space travel sexy for a new generation.

Sadly there are conspiracy theorists who believe that the landing never happened, prompting a lot of effort to demonstrate otherwise (also here and here and here). Proving a negative is hard to do, and there are always people (see also evolution debaters and 911 conspiracy theories) who choose belief over evidence.

The mission was a success from launch to lunar module liftoff to landing because many people worked on it, including small but critical contributions from unlikely people.

NASA has been working on cleaning up the Apollo 11 television footage. Here is a sample:

Finally, here is a montage video of highlights from the entire mission -- Armstrong's first words from the moon occur around 1:02. It should also be noted that Walter Cronkite, the iconic newscaster for CBS, passed away earlier last week.

Happy Neilsday 2009...

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