Apollo 11: The mission that took man to the moon turns 50

“This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”: so Armstrong defined the feat.

Entering Apollo 11, a year before the invention of microcomputers, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong realized a dream that has always accompanied humanity. Discovering space, going beyond the limits of the Earth and even, who knows, coming face to face with some form of life were ancient desires, expressed in different cultures of the West and East. The closest extraterrestrial object, the Moon held a special fascination and virtually all societies have mythologies associated with it.

Interestingly, the 20th century didn’t start out so attentive to the satellite. “At that time, astronomers were only interested in objects outside our Solar System. They saw the Moon as a nuisance that lit up the night sky, making it difficult to study the faintest stars and galaxies,” said William Hartmann, astronomer and science communicator, through the press office of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson. one of the first graduate students of the famous American scientist Gerard Kuiper, considered the father of modern planetary science.

Unlike most astronomers at the time, the group led by Kuiper at the University of Arizona was not only interested in the Moon but also produced the first lunar atlases from photographs. These publications helped the North American Space Agency (NASA) to understand the geology of the satellite and to choose the best places for the probes and, in the future, the men to land on the Apollo missions.

At the end of the decade, space was no longer something so new to man. Eight years earlier, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Garagin claimed the title of the first man to leave Earth. In the midst of the Cold War, the United States could not be left behind. The space race officially began on October 4, 1957, when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, prompting NASA to design a much bolder program.

The Americans would not only cross the land border, they would leave footprints on the Moon. “Sending a manned mission was much more for glamor than scientific validity”, explains astronomer Naelton Mendes de Araújo, from the Planetarium in Rio de Janeiro. “Automated probes are much faster, safer and cheaper. So manned flight was much more about politics than science.

The rocket used in the mission was the Saturn V, launched on July 16, 1969 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Before sending Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to the Moon, NASA prepared three unmanned missions: Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter. Between 1961 and 1965, nine Ranger probes were launched. The first successful one was 7, which departed on July 28, 1964, landed on the Mare Congitum plain, south of the Copernicus crater, and from there sent more than 4,300 photos to Earth.

In February of the following year, Ranger 8 landed in the same place that the Apollo 11 astronauts would leave their footprints: the Sea of ​​Tranquility. The last Ranger spacecraft was launched in March 1965 and sent 5,800 new images from the Alphonsus crater. Crafted at the University of Arizona, these photographs formed the basis of atlases produced by Gerard Kuiper’s team.

Between 1966 and 1968, five out of seven Surveyor missions were successful and, in addition to more than 90,000 photos, performed experiments, examined the lunar soil below the surface and identified the mineral composition of some spots on the Moon. One of the main discoveries – by the way, much more important from a scientific point of view than any accomplishment of Apollo 11 – was the existence of basalt, indicating that, early in the satellite’s history, the formation of large craters led to the melting of material. inside the Moon, which triggered violent volcanisms.

The complete mapping of the satellite, an essential step in sending a manned mission, would take place with the Lunar Orbiter, which, between 1966 and 1967, investigated in detail the topography and geology of different types of lunar terrain in order to find the most suitable place for the Apollo moon landing. With so much information in hand, NASA set the launch date for man’s long-awaited trip to the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, the commander, Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot, and Michael Collins, the command module pilot, departed Earth on July 16, 1969 atop the legendary Saturn V rocket, not knowing if they would return alive. “There were numerous uncertainties, so everyone involved could only consider the mission a success when it ended,” NASA said through its communications office. But everything went well and exactly 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Eagle module landed in the Sea of ​​Tranquility.

This incredible image was captured from the Apollo 11 spacecraft as it approached the Moon.

Even with the political bias that overshadowed the program’s scientific goals, the Apollo missions became one of the most prolific moments in the history of science. It is no exaggeration to say that almost everything we know about the Solar System was discovered thanks to these expeditions.

Our view of the Moon has profoundly changed. If before it was seen as a primordial object of uncertain origin and structure, it came to be seen as a complex world, not so different from Earth in several ways. Owner of a very active geological past (between 4.6 and 4.4 billion years ago, it was covered by a deep ocean of magma), its rocky material has already melted, erupted through volcanoes and was crushed by impacts of meteorite over and over again.

As it evolved under terrestrial gravitational influence, it became somewhat asymmetrical. Its surface is covered by a thick layer of dust and stone fragments: the lunar regolith. It preserves a unique chemical record of 4 billion years of solar radiation — important for understanding climate change on Earth.

When studying the Moon, scientists feel like space paleontologists: the youngest lunar rocks are the same age as the oldest terrestrial ones. Here, plate tectonics and erosion are always changing older surfaces. On the Moon, they remain untouched. Studies on the rocks there and here also make it clear that the compositions are very similar. Therefore, the Earth and its natural satellite have a common origin. But there is one point where they are very different: much has been tested for signs of life, past or present, in lunar samples and nothing has been found.
Apollo, the sun god

One late afternoon in 1960, while leafing through a book of mythological stories in his home, NASA’s director of spaceflight programs was struck by a figure. It showcased one of the most revered gods of Ancient Greece in all his splendor. “Apollo driving his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the scale of the proposed program,” explained Abe Silverstein later. It was he who set the precedent of naming manned space projects after gods and heroes, with the pioneering Mercury program in 1958.

Apollo was the god of archery, prophecy, oracles, poetry and music, dance, knowledge, healing, and most of all, light and the sun. Every day he rode in his golden chariot and pulled the sun on its way across the sky.

But why, after all, was the name of the first manned missions to the Moon inspired by the Sun god? It’s just that, when he thought of the name, Silverstein still didn’t know that the program’s ultimate destination would be the lunar surface. Until then, he worked with the idea of ​​a continuity to space flights with astronauts. He wasn’t sure where.
Future of Missions

Since then, only a small club of countries has been able to travel the 384,000 kilometers away and land probes on the arid surface of the Earth satellite. In addition to the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, only China has succeeded. The European Union, Japan and India also got there, but without a controlled landing.

The Moon has always been a goal. But like the top of a mountain, just getting there was worth the effort. However, in the new phase of space exploration, private companies, which are the main protagonists, do not want adventure for the spirit of adventure. Ambition is greater, it involves the riches of the Moon.

“We will return to the Moon to stay. We are going with our international partners and we are going to use the resources of the Moon. We have already discovered hundreds of millions of tons of ice at the Moon’s south pole. That’s water to drink, that’s air to breathe, and hydrogen and oxygen are also rocket fuel,” explained Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the US Space Agency.

In early 2019, NASA announced the Artemis program, named after the twin sister of the god Apollo in Greek mythology. The goal is to take astronauts to the Moon by 2024. The project includes a fuel station in orbit around the Moon.

NASA will coordinate the project of this structure called Gateway, or Portal, and wants the private initiative, in addition to building parts of the station, to be responsible for the transport between the Gateway and the lunar surface.

“One of NASA’s biggest goals today is to help the commercial industry grow and develop to partner,” said the Gateway project’s logistics manager.

The biggest bets on this strategy are individuals with proven entrepreneurial skills, huge egos, and a lot of money. Elon Musk, owner of electric car maker Tesla, founded Space X; and Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the richest man on the planet, created Blue Origin. The two companies already have contracts with NASA.

On that July 20, 1969, a quarter of humanity followed, live, on TV and radio, the commander of the mission.

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