This Saturday at 3:17 PM marks exactly 50 years since the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the moon—a frontier never before conquered by humankind. Six hours and 39 minutes later, the world watched a live broadcast as Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the lunar surface and deliver those famous words:
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Apollo 11’s mission was to land two men on the lunar surface and return them safely to Earth—a feat that would effectively end the Space Race (a competition with the Soviet Union to achieve spaceflight milestones) and fulfill a national goal proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Both Commander Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin spent over two hours outside the spacecraft collecting lunar material to bring back to Earth. The two spent a total of 21 hours and 31 minutes on the lunar surface at a site, later named Tranquility Base, before lifting into orbit on a trajectory back to Earth. As they were on the moon’s surface, module pilot Michael Collins flew the command module “Columbia” alone in orbit. It has been said, “not since Adam has any human known such solitude”. After more than eight days in space, the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, safely returning the command module and its three crew members.
The success of the mission sparked celebrations around the world. Ticker-tape parades and a world tour were held in honor of the astronauts, who were each awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon. Apollo 11’s success brought an end to the Space Race and was perceived to demonstrate the United States’ technological superiority. The moon landing’s cultural significance has made a lasting impact on society and is s one of humankind’s greatest and most iconic achievements.
Yet, while most celebrated the accomplishments of the mission, some saw Apollo 11 as a symbol of divide in America. Many frustrated citizens wondered why so much money was being spent on the Apollo program and not on pressing issues of inequality. A famous poem by blues singer Gill Scott-Heron entitled “Whitey on the Moon” illustrates the racial inequality in America at the time of the moon landing. The poem begins:
“A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
Despite sparking great interest around the world, follow up Apollo missions did not capture the same global interest that Apollo 11 did. After the great success of 11, many imagined we’d now be further along, in terms of space exploration. The space policy of the George W. Bush Administration imagined human return to the moon by the year 2020 in preparation for exploration of Mars and other destinations.
So what happened? Why did the public stop caring?
After the Apollo 11 mission, while most Americans were proud of their nation’s achievement, by 1973, a majority favored cutting spending on space exploration. The Cold War had ended, the Space Race was over and national tensions had eased. Inflation was on the rise and the government was forced to reduce spending. Still, the Space Shuttle program carried on in the spirit of human exploration. However, tragedy struck in 1986 when seven crew members of the Challenger were killed 73 seconds into its mission, and again in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon atmospheric entry, killing all seven crew members. Public enthusiasm for space exploration reached an all-time low. The reality of the dangers of the missions had been realized.
Today, NASA’s spending accounts for less than 0.5% of the federal budget. Returning to the moon and exploring other destinations is certainly not out of the realm of technological possibility, but our nation’s primary concerns seem to have moved away from human presence in space. Along with safety concerns, exhaust gases produced by previous rocket propulsion systems have induced environmental concerns.
Though enthusiasm surrounding the program is not what it used to be, NASA continues aerospace research and has ultimately given us an understanding of the Earth and our solar system greater than any generation before us. Apollo 11 represented the world’s first opportunity to observe the lunar surface and remains perhaps our nation’s most iconic scientific feat of the 20th century. The 50th anniversary of the moon landing this weekend is not only a celebration of the Apollo 11 mission, but a celebration of the human spirit and triumphs that were made possible because of this mission’s success.