50th anniversary of the moon landing: some scientists’ viewpoint

An astronomer, an anthropologist, a physicist and a space engineer invite us to commemorate and reflect on this feat of humanity.

[Armstrong] Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

[MCC] Roger, Twan… Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

With these concise words, the astronaut caused agitation to everyone at the Mission Control Center and to the whole world and, immediately after, he brought the greatest tranquility. Tranquility, the name Armstrong chose for the base where they had just landed. Until that moment, he has kept it secret from his perplexed and relieved audience. Fifty years after this historical milestone, some scientists bring themselves to reflect on the implications of this achievement.

What most amazed CONICET researcher Gabriel R. Bengochea was the fact that, in the 60s, all non-existent technology required was developed: special materials, computers, water purifiers, machines, vehicles and space suits. “There were no suppliers to ask them for a work to be done,” tells the scientist who works at the Instituto de Astronomía Física del Espacio (IAFE, CONICET–UBA). “Everything was being done for the first time. We, humans, had to learn how to take off and orbit the Earth, dock two spaceships in orbit, depart Earth orbit, orbit another heavenly body, descend towards the Moon, and come back home safe and sound.”

For Marcela Cañada Assandri, astronomer at the Department of Geophysics and Astronomy (FCEFN-UNSJ and CONICET), the landing on the Moon meant, in many aspects, a turning point to Planetary sciences, especially for those scientists involved in analyzing the surface features of heavenly bodies, such as composition, porosity, surface roughness. Also, for those interested in planet formation.

Dr. Livio Gratton is an aerospace engineer at the Argentinian National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE). His curiosity for space and his passion for expedition made him capture all his knowledge of the Apollo mission in a talk for the general public. He has been giving this conference during the month of July in different cities. The First one was held in the Galileo Galilei planetarium of Buenos Aires. The talk —called “50 years of Apollo 11: Technical and Human Details of the Mission”— deals with many central aspects of the mission: the different stages, the protagonists, the technical challenges, the extravehicular activity, and even with some curiosities. The man on the Moon’s amazing story is told through a meticulous selection of videos.

As a great admirer of Neil Armstrong’s personality, Gratton would like to transmit human’s feelings and sensations along the mission. “I would like the public to feel a little bit of what the three astronauts felt: Collins alone in the command module; the other two astronauts getting a couple of hours of sleep on the lunar surface before going out; the anxiety that appeared every time they had to activate something, or when the radio communication was lost; the uncertainty of the people on Earth, the wish of a whole Planet that the mission succeeded…”


Some scientific contributions of the mission

“Compared to the later Apollo missions, Apollo 11’s main purposes had little science, as the most important goal was to land on the Moon,” says Bengochea. “The astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin were able to walk only short distances during two and a half hours.  Among the first footprints on the lunar dust, they installed a seismograph and a device with mirrors that, today, allows us to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon, by sending laser pulses to those mirrors from the Earth. Also, humans were able to confirm, in person, that our everyday physics works alike in another celestial body.”

Another aspect is that the Moon reveals a very active past in the Solar System. “With its surface full of craters and a shared history with the Earth, it gives us complementary information about the chemical elements that were present in the primitive Solar System, 4600 million years ago,” he adds. “The armalcolite (a titanium, iron and magnesium oxide) is a mineral that was discovered at the Sea of Tranquility and it was named in honor of the three Apollo 11 astronauts. It’s a contraction of their names: ARMstrong + Aldrin + COLlins. Approximately, 22kg of rock were brought from this mission, which together with the later missions add to a total of 382 kilograms,” says the scientist.

“These rocks represent the first sample of true material brought from another celestial body,” comments Cañada. “In our Planet, there are other samples of extraterrestrial material: the meteorites. However, we can only estimate their origin.” For this reason, the rocks brought from the Moon were useful to study, for example, the direct relations between a material property and the place where they were found, among many other aspects.

The remaining missions, which descended to the Moon until 1972, did greater expeditions and more thorough experiments.


Science, political power and life

Alejandro López is an astronomer, anthropologist and CONICET researcher at the University of Buenos Aires. According to him, the missions to the Moon illustrate an interesting case study to analyze the relationship between science and other aspects of life, in particular, political power and political life. “In this sense, the Apollo missions —which are among the greatest achievements of science-engineering combination in history— show this relationship,” he says.

The researcher tells that the missions occurred in the context of the Cold War, a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, as a symbolic and practical dispute for the control of space. In fact, space technology was based on developments created for prior conflicts. After World War II, these two countries fought over some experts and technology of the German missile program V1 and V2. “Space placement became a key issue due to the importance of the terrestrial orbital space domain for satellite placement, which facilitate communications and strategic photography”.

History tells that the Russians were the ones to give the first successful steps at the beginning of the Space Race. They even put the first man in orbit. On April 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to observe the Earth from outer space. “For the USA, to reverse the Soviet’s advantage became crucial. For this reason, Kennedy established as an imperative goal to put a man on the Moon, when he had just became President”.

“In the Apollo program, we can see that there is a lot that has to do with a political decision and with symbolic elements; a lot that has to do with going one step ahead in the Space Race and to demonstrate the United States’ power. Scientific interests were important, of course, but they were not a determining factor as to the budget and effort that was necessary to carry these missions out. In fact, in the history of space programs, there has not been another similar budget”.


Did the feat actually happen?

López suggests that, with the political goals achieved, the US rearranges its priorities and resources. The Apollo missions are cancelled and interest is focused on establishing the first International Space Station. “Along with this rearrangement of political priorities, it is interesting to analyze the social perceptions on the matter. Originally, this extraordinary event had an enormous impact on the public opinion. People regarded it as unbelievable,” he points out.

However, as time passes by, the huge enthusiasm fades away and “conspiracy theories” emerge. These theories question whether the arrival on the Moon was true or not. According to López, this relates to changes in social imaginaries about science and political power. “These suspicions are very interesting as a social phenomenon and allow us to understand the multiple ways in which people perceive science, and how ideas about what is real and what is not are created,” he adds.

These socio-cultural phenomena are very complex, so they are generally studied by cultural astronomers. “It is very interesting to analyze how the other Apollo missions are erased from social memory. There were six missions in total that were able to put human beings on the Moon’s surface. But, if we ask the man on the street, the answer will be: ‘Man arrived at the Moon in 1969, and never went back again’. Our memory activates and deactivates according to different contexts and interests, not only at an individual level, but also at a social level,” he comments.

“I believe that people who doubt about the Moon landing have had no interest or time to read all the available documentation on NASA’s website,” says Gratton. There, you can find the complete transcription of dialogues, the description of every maneuver, the computer entries, and much more of the eight-day-long mission. “If one had to invent all of that and make it meaningful, it would be a much greater effort than putting a man on the Moon,” he smiles and sums up: “For me, the most convincing proof is that the Soviets never denied the fact. Although they didn’t announce it with great fanfare, many polite scientists wrote some press articles congratulating the US for the achievement. What would the Soviets of that time have wanted more than to unmask a sham like that?”


Commemorating the great historical event

“Maybe, the Apollo project was one of the greatest ventures done by a huge work team. Approximately, 400 thousand people were involved in the project of putting a man on the Moon throughout a decade,” Bengochea reflects. For the physicist, the message behind this commemoration would be that “even the impossible can be achieved with a specific goal and with a good working team.”

According to López, it would be interesting “to reactivate the social memory on the details of the process and to remember that Apollo 11 was not the only one, but that there were a series of previous attempts. There were also six missions after Apollo 11, and a lot of scientific work done with the samples collected on the Moon, and with the devices that are still up there.”

As a woman Astronomer, Marcela Cañada would like to stress the important work done by Margaret Hamilton, a pioneer in Software Engineering. “It was her programming that made the correct calculations for the Apollo 11 to succeed in its mission and to come back home safely.”

“I can’t stop thinking about fragility. There are thousands and thousands of things that had to go well for this mission’s success,” Gratton considers. “This is a proof of what society can achieve when it focuses its effort.” For this engineer, 1969’s landmark has not been surpassed again. He also highlights the fact that they did not have good quality pictures of the Moon at that time, or today’s organization capacity. As programmers did not have requirements, they started programming all that was needed almost from zero.

“For me, it’s like a miracle,” expresses Gratton summing up. “The Apollo project was something like this: ‘we don’t have much time, we need to keep going’. They invented everything and fixed the problems on the way. Not even two years passed between Apollo 1 —where three astronauts died— and Apollo 11. They had to redesign the command module completely. And they did it…”

By Jorgelina Martínez Grau