Half a century ago, the first humans stepped foot on Earth’s lonely natural satellite. Achieved over the course of several days and manned by three intrepid astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—the lunar landing of Apollo 11 was the culmination of a project more than a decade in the making, and which involved more than 400,000 participants.
After fifty years, we are still seeing the influence of Apollo 11, which historian Arthur Schlesinger called the single greatest achievement of the 20th century. But what are the longer lasting implications of the 1969 moon landing?
I recently spoke with Rod Pyle, editor in chief of Ad Astra, the official publication of the National Space Society and author of First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience (for which Buzz Aldrin wrote the introduction). According to Pyle, understanding the longer-lasting influence of Apollo 11 requires a look back at the mindset behind United States leadership more than half a century ago.
“Apollo was a geopolitical program,” Pyle says, “but it was really designed to make a point: which was ‘We’re better than the Soviets. We have better scientists, we have better technicians, we have better engineering and better education, better systems of government.’ It achieved that handily and trounced them as a lunar effort, and they were trying and weren’t able to do it with people. So, it achieved that goal.”
However, Pyle also says that the speed at which Americans were able to put astronauts on the moon in 1969 placed some limitations on the usefulness of Apollo-era innovations for future projects.
“The problem was, it was done so quickly, and with such finesse, and was so purpose driven that although there were plans to use the Apollo hardware for other things, it was kind of a closed-end system. By 1972, we were done with the lunar missions. They had enough hardware left for three more: Apollo 18 through 20, [and] Nixon cancelled that shortly after the Apollo 11 flight.”
That isn’t to say that there weren’t still many applications for Apollo-era innovations, as well as those which came later under similar influence. “We had Skylab,” Pyle notes, “[and we had] the Space Station, and that was a legacy; we had the first cooperative flights between the U.S. and the Soviet Union with Apollo/Soyuz in 1975, and then it slowed down.
“We started working on the shuttle, which is a whole different approach,” Pyle also said. “It was supposed to be reusable—and it kind of was—it was suppose to be cheaper, and it kind of wasn’t. It wasn’t as safe as Apollo.”
However, it could be argued that in addition to being the single greatest achievement of the 20th century, the Apollo moon landings may have also been the most inspirational, in terms of the future of space exploration; whether directly or indirectly.
“I think the legacy of Apollo, besides the philosophical achievement, the sense of adventure, and so forth, is a couple of things,” Pyle told me. “Even pessimistic projections about the money spent say that there’s anywhere from between five dollars and twenty-one dollars returned for every dollar invested in Apollo. And that’s just talking in money terms. That kind of program—a space program—is one of the few things in which government money is all pumped back into American labor; there’s no outsourcing. It’s all happening in the U.S., with U.S. workers, so that’s a benefit.
“They’re developing technologies that have benefited us to this day; everything from computing, to medical—kidney dialysis, artificial joints—anti-scratch coating on the lenses of your glasses, the dust buster was a design descended from the vacuum they designed to vacuum inside the lunar module! So all kinds of spin-offs and benefits—including our cell phones, by the way—that have persisted through the years.”
But above all, Apollo 11 continues to inspire us.
“If I go up to the Jet Propulsion Lab, where I work from time to time, and I sit at a table in the cafeteria and [ask the employees], ‘what got you into this kind of work?’ Some people are gonna say Star Trek, some are gonna say Star Wars… but they all say the Apollo Program. ‘I wasn’t even alive then,’ in many cases they’ll say. ‘The Apollo Program really inspired me to do this’.”
I also asked Pyle about future missions to the moon, as well as our eventual journeys to Mars, and what we might be able to predict about the future of space travel based on our experience with the Apollo program.
“If we [look at] this planned return to the moon that Vice President Pence announced a few months ago, that hardware looks a lot like Apollo because it’s gotta do the same thing. So we’re not talking about winged space shuttles and things like that, we’re talking about a conical capsule—a blunt-body capsule just like the Apollo capsule, but a little bigger (that’s the Orion)—we’re talking about the Space Launch System (SLS), and possibly using the Falcon Heavy and one of Jeff Bezos’ rockets (which are all heavily derivative of the Saturn V). We’re talking about moon suits that are derivative from what was built for Apollo, and we’re talking about a lunar lander: the best candidate so far is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Moon lander which he’s been working on for a few years, which derives a lot of its technology core from the [Apollo] lunar module.
“So between us and the Soviet Union, we did a ton of the heavy lifting, and the picking of the low-hanging fruit back in the 1960s, and now we’ve come full circle and we’re revisiting all that technology, to try and get back beyond Earth orbit, back to the moon, land on that south polar region where we know there’s big deposits of water ice, and see if we can use that water ice to stay there, and go beyond. Because where you’ve got water, you’ve got drinkable water, you can make breathable oxygen, and critically you can make rocket fuel out of it—you can make hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel.
“And with that, because you’re already out of the gravity well of the Earth, the solar system is your backyard! So that kind of is the big goal right now, and it all stems directly from the Apollo missions.”
In essence, the legacy of the Apollo missions remains very relevant today, and in likelihood, they will remain so for decades to come. Even with the passing of half a century, the achievements of the Apollo 11 lunar landing continue to shape the way we study space… and help to sharpen our sights for future avenues toward exploration of the cosmos.