This July marks 50 years since Apollo astronauts landed on the moon for the first time — marking a definitive milestone in space exploration and sparking the imagination of future scientists and engineers, with eyes to the cosmos. Today, the first moon landing still inspires, and informs new endeavors into space. The following Cornell University researchers are available for interviews ahead of the July 20 anniversary.
Mason Peck is professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and former NASA Chief Technologist. He says the NASA of the Apollo era looked like a space startup and that the startups of today are the Apollo missions of this decade.
“Even though no more than half of Americans were supportive at the time, we look back on Apollo as a project where the entire nation pulled together to achieve an extraordinary goal. The goal was audacious. And audacious, mostly young, people achieved it. In fact, in those days, NASA looked a lot like a space startup: committed, vigorous, and enthusiastic — maybe even a little naïve.
“Those brief visits to the moon set a high bar for NASA and for all space exploration since. Apollo embedded an idea in our culture: that space is ours. Now, at long last, grandkids of Apollo are rethinking space, taking ownership of it once more, democratizing access to it, and working to make space our permanent home. Space startups from SpaceX to Planet Labs, students launching their own spacecraft, and the discovery of new worlds are the Apollo missions of this decade. I’d argue it’s all thanks to the Apollo missions that ‘came in peace for all mankind.’
“Even those who are skeptical about space science and the prospects for success among startup companies can’t deny the value of the technology that has spun off of our nation’s exploration. We’ve come to understand that investing in space doesn’t mean leaving dollars on the moon. That money is spent right here, on Earth, building up our technological capabilities and advancing the interests of all of us. Thousands of new solutions to everyday problems, from infant formula to smartphone cameras, owe their existence to Apollo and NASA’s successes since. So, in celebrating Apollo’s 50th anniversary, we’re recognizing not only a 20th century achievement but 50 years of innovation that will continue to shape the 21st century.”
Elizabeth Bilson, former administrative director of space sciences, worked with Professor Thomas Gold, a principal investigator in the Apollo sample analysis program. She recalls studying the composition of lunar samples.
“With my family, I watched the lunar landing and Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the lunar soil, an unforgettable event. A few months later the first lunar soil and tiny rock samples arrived in the lunar laboratory.
“There were several objectives of the lunar sample analysis in Gold's laboratory. The most interesting was to find an explanation for the relatively low reflectivity of the lunar surface, that was mostly covered by a fine dust layer. A very capable colleague and I worked several years on this problem and found that the soil particle's surface was enriched in iron and some other heavy metals.”
Peter Thomas is a visiting scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. He says the Apollo program succeeded in part because of its well-defined goal.
“The Apollo program to land men on the Moon was a particular action within the Cold War that tapped cultural enthusiasm for technology and exploration, and fit into a view of fulfilling ancient dreams. It succeeded because it had a well-defined goal, had substantive technical and intellectual foundations, and was popular enough to withstand major setbacks. Controversial technical decisions were allowed to stand on merit and largely avoided effects of political second-guessing.
“For someone growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, the race to the moon was an exciting realization of dreams. Five more landings followed Apollo 11; these vastly expanded the scientific output of the program. Apollo lunar samples still generate new science.
“Fifty years later the human perspective on space has been transformed by robotic missions throughout the solar system and by detection of thousands of planets around other stars.”
Philip Nicholson is professor of astronomy and deputy director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. He recalls the first moon landing as among the biggest news stories of the 1960s.
“I was an undergraduate in Australia at the time of the Apollo 11 landing, but I still recall it quite well. Public TV screens were not nearly so ubiquitous then, so the Physics department set up several closed-circuit TVs in one of their big lecture halls, generally used to show lab demonstrations. There must have been 400 or so people crammed into the lecture hall to watch Armstrong's Big Step for Mankind broadcast live from the U.S., via satellite. The black and white picture was so grainy it was hard to make out any details, but enough to see him jump down to the lunar surface!
"Apart from Cuba, the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, it was the biggest news story of the 1960s, that I recall. Definitely NASA's finest hour!"