Curiosity is one essential trait of the human mind. It is the instinctive urge to know more; to see what is beyond, to explore. For many, when on July 20th, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the surface of the Moon, they embodied that urge. For others, their feat was the tipping point of a struggle for world domination.  A war the superpowers of the era waged using space exploration and science as the backdrop. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of that pioneering moment in human exploration.

Apollo 11 crew

11 Apollo facts

  1. Some History. After World War 2, the United States and the Soviet Union went from allies to enemies. Their military and political prestige were at stake. Now the possibility of a “mutually assured nuclear annihilation” was a reality, so a new type of conflict, the Cold War, emerged. It was waged on diverse political and economic arenas, yet only on a very limited scale on the military front. The Cold War defined international relations for nearly half a century.

A by-product of the Cold War, the Space Race was a propaganda-charged technological competition between the superpowers. The race’s evident goal was to “conquer space” and reach the Moon. The not-so-obvious one was to showcase the achievements and might of their antagonistic political and economic systems.

Man on the Moon: a historical moment for humankind
  1. Some data. The Apollo Project was launched after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit around the Earth, in April 1961. The new Project was preceded by Projects Mercury and Gemini. It was active until 1975 and was run by the National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA). The plans included several unmanned test missions and 12 manned missions, several of which were eventually canceled.
  2. Coincidences? In his 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon”, French writer Jules Verne tells the story of a space mission. Organized in the United States, its goal is to land a 3-man expedition to the moon using a capsule called the ‘Columbiad’. The mission shoots off from Florida and reaches its destination in 4 days. When they come back, the Columbiad splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.
  3. The United States were losing the race. Between 1957 and 1963, before Apollo 11, most of the previous spaceflight milestones had been conquered first by the Soviet Union. The first ship to reach the moon was not American. The Soviet unmanned probe Luna 2 landed had landed on it on September 14th, 1959. The Apollo landing put an end to the 12-year-long technological and ideological battle.
  4. lt was a very expensive endeavor. The Apollo missions cost US$ 25.4 billion -nearly US$ 153 billion in today’s money. (The Manhattan Project was “only” US$ 2 billion).
  5. There is a “Tico” goodwill message up there. Costa Rica is one of the 73 nations that sent a message in the Apollo 11. The words of President J. J. Trejos Fernández are inscribed in a silicon memorial disc that was deposited on the lunar surface by the Apollo’s crew.
  6. The data processing technology we now take for granted was in its infancy. Most of the trajectory calculations and software codes that landed men on the moon and brought them back were performed by an all-woman team of skilled mathematicians that worked as “human computers”.
  7. It was a huge TV event. 94% of Americans with a TV tuned in. About 600 million people watched the landing live. This remained as an absolute audience record for 12 years. In 1981, Princess Diana’s wedding summoned 750 million viewers.
  8. No space bugs were found. The Apollo 11’s crew spent 21 h 36 min 20 s on the surface of the Moon. After they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, they spent 21 days of complete isolation in a ‘Mobile Quarantine Facility’ unit until they were given a clean bill of health.
  9. Conspiracy theories. There are hundreds. They involve all sorts of alien activities and/or government plots and hoaxes. To this day, many people still believe that the entire Apollo Program was a fabrication and that Mankind has never been to the moon.
  10. Words to be remembered by

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. Mission Commander, Neil Armstrong

“Magnificent desolation”. Lunar Module Pilot, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin

 2 Questions:

Why have we not been back to the moon since 1972?

The last 2 persons to walk on the moon were Apollo 17’s astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 11th, 1972. Since then, there have not been more manned missions to out the satellite. Experts say the main reasons for this are not obvious scientific or technical challenges.  They blame it on lack of the necessary budget and on political issues. Manned exploration is still the most expensive and the most controversial. Another reason is the loss of interest by the general public.

What did we get out of it?

In order to accomplish the mission, scientists developed several technologies and devices that are in use today: CAT scanners, computer microchips, freeze-dried foods, better insulation, fire-resistant materials, and more.

The most important thing is that for a fleeting moment, Mankind put aside its differences and shared a sense of unity with the 3 human beings on the moon. That is not something that is found in the rock samples, the photos, or the experiments. It is proof that when there are a will and a desire to do things well, we can achieve anything, no matter how difficult.