Cornell astronomers recall exhilaration of Apollo 11, look to future of spaceflight

History lessons, personal remembrances and speculation on the future of manned spaceflight were all part of Cornell and Ithaca's July 18 celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, hosted by the Cornell Department of Astronomy.

The public event, complete with colorful posters, displays and activities for children, featured a panel discussion with Cornell astronomers, who recounted the significance of the Apollo 11 moon landing and layered it with historical context. The panel was moderated by Steve Squyres, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy and principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, and included Peter Thomas, senior research associate in astronomy; Elizabeth Bilson, former administrative director of the astronomy department; and Jim Bell, professor of astronomy and leader of the Mars Exploration Rover Pancam team.

The success of the Apollo mission, said Thomas, was helped by its well-defined goals and real political and public support. It also had a deadline, as was famously set by President John F. Kennedy in a 1961 speech to Congress.

"Mankind was progressing, there was the moon, and of course you were going to go to the moon," Thomas said. "It's difficult, but of course you could."

The moon landing had captured the world's attention, and Cornell also had a unique role to play before, during and after the most historic of moments. The late professor of astronomy Thomas Gold designed the stereo camera the astronauts used to take pictures of the lunar surface, said Bilson, who worked for Gold at the time. In the aftermath of the mission, lunar rock samples were brought to Cornell and analyzed by Gold and professor of chemistry George Morrison, who helped identify the many elements found in the lunar rocks. Bilson drew laughter recounting NASA's strict rules about keeping the rock samples safe, and remembered on at least two occasions the Cornell Police coming in, after scientists had forgotten to disable an alarm.

The legacy of Apollo 11 will live on for some time, and meanwhile, the future of space exploration is taking shape, Bell said. A number of other countries have recently conducted lunar missions, including China, India and Japan, he said.

Both Bell and Thomas are involved in an ongoing NASA mission called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the first mission in a plan to return to the moon and travel to Mars and beyond, according to NASA. Among LRO's objectives, Bell said, is to search for potential landing outposts on the lunar surface.

Simultaneously, the NASA mission Constellation involves the building of new, advanced spacecrafts that will soon retire the space shuttle model NASA has relied on since the 1980s, Bell explained.

"Despite the incredibleness of the shuttle and the amazing people who fly it and the things that it does, the shuttle cannot get above low-Earth orbit," Bell said. "It cannot go beyond the International Space Station, several hundreds of kilometers above the surface of the Earth. The shuttle can't go to the moon, can't go to asteroids, can't go to Mars. So taking that and retiring it opens up, in theory, this wedge of funding within the NASA budget to do something else. And that something else is the Constellation program."

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