July 16, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

50 Years After Apollo, Our Moon Is Still Mysterious

Scientists in the 1960s were confident that the moon missions would solve their problems with lunar origins.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 (see Space.com commemoration). The historic landing on the moon occurred four days later on July 20th, 1969, and the crew returned safely to Earth on July 24th. The astronauts were lofted into space atop a mighty Saturn V rocket, which still holds the record for the largest rocket ever built, according to the BBC News. The Saturn V was the crowning achievement of Wernher von Braun, our scientist of the month, and his team of engineers and scientists.

Moon Science Is Recent

Until the first lunar spacecraft visited, the moon could only be seen from Earth through telescopes. The far side of the moon was never visible to earthlings until the Russian spacecraft Luna 3 took indistinct photographs in October 1959. Now, our satellite is known in more detail than ever before in history, both from orbit and from rock samples brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts. But how well do scientists understand our moon? During Apollo week celebrations, we want to examine what has been learned in the space age. But first, some history.

In this book, Dr Richter shares details only known to an eyewitness of the events.

Shortly after the first satellites made Earth orbit in 1957 (Sputnik 1 and 2) and 1958 (Explorer 1), the new civilian NASA agency, created for America’s space exploits, targeted the moon for investigation. One of the spacecraft pioneers in those days, Dr Henry Richter, who managed the instruments and communications for Explorer 1 (January 31, 1958), is a contributing author for Creation-Evolution Headlines. He also developed the Deep Space Network that monitors spacecraft to this day. At the leading edge of lunar explorations, Richter also planned the instrumentation for the Ranger missions (1961-1965) that impacted the moon and the Surveyor missions (1966-1968) that soft landed on the moon (see Richter, America’s Leap Into Space, ch. 18). Those unmanned missions were the first to see the lunar surface up close. They provided essential data to scientists taking up President John F. Kennedy’s historic charge in 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to Earth.

This week we remember the hundreds of thousands of workers, including black women mathematicians (BBC News) and countless others from janitors to physicists, who were able to say to America, ‘Mission Accomplished!’—just five months before the decade was over. To many people, Apollo 11 was mankind’s greatest achievement. [Hear Coppedge’s “Apollo March” that celebrates the victory in music, played by the US Air Force Band of the Golden West.]

Poster by Alan Bean made for the 25th anniversary of Apollo. He titled this work “In the Beginning.”

Because It Is Hard

The success of Apollo is all the more remarkable in that it was achieved with computers less powerful than those in today’s smartphones. It was designed using pencils and slide rules, and proceeded in a time of national turmoil. In the decade of the 1960s, the nation was embroiled in the unpopular Vietnam War. A couple of years after Kennedy’s speech, he was assassinated. Hippies created a national counter-culture that was largely anti-war and anti-American, with some movements turning violent. Riots broke out in major cities, draft dodgers defied the law, while thousands of their brothers who obeyed the call died in Vietnam jungles. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson was so frustrated with all the national turmoil, he did not seek re-election.

Click photo to watch a slide show of Project Mercury, accompanied by the new Mercury March by David Coppedge

The solo Mercury missions (1958 to 1963) and the duo Gemini missions (1961 to 1966) proceeded almost in the background. Only a few of them drew front-page headlines (Alan Shepard, the first astronaut; John Glenn, the first to orbit the Earth; Ed White, the first space walk), but many other flights passing almost unnoticed. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three of our prime astronauts (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) set back the program for almost two years. Some protestors declared this ‘moonshot’ (which became a metaphor for any extraordinary national commitment) was a waste of money, considering all the other problems facing the country (see Space.com). One brief moment of unity came Christmas Eve 1968, when the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first to orbit the moon, saw the first Earthrise, and read from Genesis and wished the world a Merry Christmas (see 12 December 2018).

The two-man Gemini missions (1961-1966) refined many of the technologies and skills needed for Apollo.

NASA engineers faced tremendous engineering hurdles keeping Apollo on schedule for Kennedy’s deadline. Delays with the Lunar Module threatened the mission. Apollo 9 (in Earth orbit) and Apollo 10 (descending part way to the moon) succeeded with some key parts on back order. Apollo 11 was a gamble. But then, two days after launch, on Friday before the moon landing on Sunday, the Chappaquiddick accident stole headlines when Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge, killing a female campaign worker. Little did his brother John Kennedy realize back in 1961 what would ensue from his remarks, “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, with the huge support crew back on Earth, overcame the hardships and did it. As we shared two weeks ago, the first momentous event after the landing was a private worship service honoring the Lord Jesus Christ. [Read at World Magazine how CAPCOM astronaut Charlie Duke, who communicated with the Apollo 11 crew during the landing, later became a Christian.]

Hadley Rille, Scott/Irwin, by Alan Bean

Dave Scott and James Irwin at work in Hadley Rille during Apollo 15, by Alan Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut. Used by permission.

The Decline of National Interest

Alan Bean touches the flag during Apollo 12, fulfillment of a childhood dream.

The moon landing did unite Americans and the world – for a brief time. Just a month after Apollo 11, the Woodstock festival celebrating free love, drugs and protest seemed more important to many than Armstrong’s “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” (What did Armstrong say? See Live Science‘s linguistic analysis). Apollo 12 in December received much less attention in the press, even though its precision landing allowed astronauts Alan Bean and Pete Conrad to walk over to the Surveyor III craft that had landed three years prior. The Apollo 13 disaster briefly awakened national concern with its white-knuckle rescue and ultimate success, but from then on, Apollo was old news, hardly noticed by the press despite increasing scientific value. Apollo 14 (January 1971) brought Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, back to the spotlight briefly when his craft landed in the lunar highlands. Apollo 15 (July 1971) with Christian astronaut James Irwin and commander Dave Scott drove the first lunar rover around on an extended stay. The Apollo 16 (April 1972) drove their rover around the lunar highlands. But by the time of the last mission, Apollo 17 (December 1972), with a geologist aboard, the nation seemed far more attentive to the growing Nixon Watergate scandal. And so man has not been back to the moon for 50 years. Could the nation do it again? Unlikely, say NASA scientists (Phys.org)—not because of lack of technology, but because of lack of political will and team-building motivation. Nevertheless, current NASA director Jim Bridenstine hopes to fulfill President Trump’s vision of returning to the moon by 2024. History will tell.

Lunar Legacies

Tomorrow we will examine some of the scientific findings that have come out of the space age. Many things have been learned in terms of data and observations. But when it comes to explaining how the moon got the way it is, that’s another story. One thing has become obvious: without our moon, we wouldn’t be here (see yesterday’s entry by Dr Jerry Bergman).

Jim Irwin in "Moon Rovers" by Alan Bean

Jim Irwin (Apollo 15) gazes upward at our blue jewel, Earth, in “Moon Rovers” by Alan Bean.


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