Moon landing: defining moment in history

By Fred Watson 18 November 2011
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More than 40 years on, that one small step on the Moon is still among humankind’s great achievements.

TO THOSE OF US WHO followed the mission’s progress hour by hour, it hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since man first stood on the Moon.

That historic flight began on 16 July 1969 with a flawless lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, and ended eight days later when Apollo 11’s tiny command module and its three-man crew splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

The highlight of the mission was the 21 and a half hours spent on the Moon’s surface by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, following their landing in the lunar module Eagle on 20 July. Half a billion people watched live TV coverage of their Moon walk (courtesy of Australia’s Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes radio telescopes).

For me – a young scientist working on a primitive space telescope at a laboratory in northern England – it was a time of pure magic. I was about to begin a study of asteroid orbits for my master’s degree, so my mind was already full of the jargon of space navigation. To read daily news reports of “trans-lunar injections” and “mid-course corrections” was, well, heavenly.

See restored video footage of the Moon landing

As most people know, Apollo 11 was followed by six more missions to the Moon, one of which (Apollo 13) didn’t make it, although its heroic crew brought it safely back to Earth. In this succession of space feats, 12 men walked (or drove) on the lunar surface, covering a total distance of 90km. They brought back 380kg of rock and soil samples, and 30,000 images of the lunar landscape that are still breathtaking in their timelessness and desolation.

It’s my view that Apollo 11’s lunar landing was a defining moment in human history. Yes, it was motivated more by Cold War politics than scientific endeavour, and yes, it represented the all-American dream, but it was an achievement of truly staggering proportions. For the first time, our species had set foot on another celestial object, an alien world.
It saddens me greatly that this extraordinary enterprise is today largely undervalued. While we have learnt that current technology lends itself best to robotic exploration of the solar system, we should never underestimate the exploits of those brave pioneers on the Sea of Tranquility 40 years ago.

Fred Watson is Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in north-western NSW.

Source: Australian Geographic (95) Jul – Sep 2009