It may be all too easy to conveniently forget or dismiss the historic anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing given the current mess our world is in. It is also just as easy to get caught up in all the problems, both petty to serious, we face, from hateful political tweets to nuclear proliferation, from celebrity gossip to climate change. Yet, the fact remains that fifty years ago, humankind observed and celebrated its greatest technological feat with the first manned landing on our moon.
Of course, everyone knows of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., the second man to walk on the moon, and Michael Collins, the command module pilot of the Columbia, which stayed in lunar orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to moon on the lunar module Eagle. Their accomplishment was truly spectacular and took great courage considering the dangers they faced with relatively untested and primitive (by today’s standards) technologies. Neil Armstrong was always an understated, low-key person who quickly disappeared from the spotlight after his feat. This is part of the reason why not many know how suitable he was for the mission. In his career, Armstrong displayed a calm veneer and quick-thinking skills that were needed in the Apollo 11 mission. Before Apollo 11, Armstrong used these skills to improvise and save his life during dangerous tests and would do so again as the Eagle approached its landing spot. The astronaut saw as they approached the site that it was not a suitable place to land the Eagle, so he used his piloting and navigational skills to quickly find a new location with precious seconds to spare before the module’s fuel ran out. The mission was that close to failing but thankfully it was a huge success which momentarily united all of humankind.
Apollo 11 was one of the most significant milestones in our collective history because with this feat humanity was no longer Earthbound. We are now on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species thanks to the mission, which truly was one small step, but an incredibly important one. This is vital because by traveling into space we are taking steps to prevent our extinction. Of course, landing on the moon was just the beginning and as of now it will take much more for us to become a true space-dwelling species.
One downside to the Apollo mission is that it was fueled back in the ’60s by the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was caught up in a struggle to get to the moon first, to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon by the end of the decade. And this was accomplished 50 years ago, but afterwards, both superpowers took their eyes off the ball. Instead of expanding upon the landing and establishing a lunar colony, both countries focused their space efforts much closer to home. As we made numerous trips to low Earth orbits to set up space stations and conduct experiments the public’s interest in the space effort quickly diminished. Many became downright dismissive and openly (and loudly) wondered what was the use of traveling to space when we had more pressing problems down on Earth.
While these critics have a legitimate point, they overlooked the long-range benefits of space travel and even the immediate ones. For example, after the Apollo program closed down in the ’70s, many of the technicians involved in the program eventually migrated to the computer field. Many of them were considered geniuses and many organizations involved with computers took advantage of this. They were able to use their expertise and knowledge to help drive the marvelous Computer Age that we live in. This is stunning when you consider that the computer that ran the Eagle spaceship was far weaker than any cellphone. As primitive as the computers were during the Apollo mission they paved the way for the computer renaissance today.
However, computers and other technological innovations are not the primary legacy of Apollo 11. Thanks to the efforts of the Apollo 11 astronauts and everyone involved, the imagination was fueled for many of today’s entrepreneurs who have an eye toward space. These include Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Robert T. Bigelow. They are actively improving and creating new space technologies such as the resuable Falcon 9 rocket–a true successor to the Apollo’s Saturn V, inflatable space habitats, and more. Private companies are now paving the way to fully return us not just to the moon but to Mars itself. So even though it may seem as if we had reached a dead end with the lunar landing 50 years ago, the fact is that there was merely a delay. We are on the cusp of the next great Space Age where the Space Race won’t be between nations but companies as they rush to reach the red planet. There will be mishaps and setbacks but in the long run these will be mere blips in our future history of being space dwellers.
Thus, 50 years later, Apollo 11 continues to impress and inspire countless of others who will carry forth our species into the stars. Collectively, we will always commemorate and celebrate this historic moment for our species because as Neil Armstrong himself famously said when he took his first step on the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Walter L. Stevenson and José Soto