It's been 50 years since the fateful launch of the Apollo 11 crew and their successful first walk on the moon on July 16th, 1969. The trek was one of the most arduous journeys that humans have ever faced, and now, NASA has its sights set on going back.
At the time, the Apollo program cost 25.4 Billion USD, equivalent to $153 billion today. It was an expensive endeavor that many questioned the financial and human cost of.
After 50 years, it's clear that the missions were worth it. They increased our knowledge of space, improved our knowledge of food safety and handling, and even helped develop rechargeable hearing aides.
As we reminisce on all that the first moon landings have brought us, let's take a look back at just what the Apollo 11 astronauts faced as they did something no one ever had before.
Getting to the Moon's Surface
By the time that Apollo 11 launched, the Saturn V launch system had been well proven. In fact, nearly everything about the mission had been done before, except the actual landing of the lunar module on the surface of the moon.
Making this happen meant that the astronauts had to undock the landing module from the command module, which would stay in orbit around the moon. When the Apollo 11 astronauts initiated this sequence, residual pressure in the connecting passage shot off into space, giving the module an extra bit of thrust. Initially, Neil Armstrong didn't think this was going to be an issue, but after a while, he calculated that they would miss their planned landing site by 3 miles. It ended up being 4.
As they continued their descent into an unforeseen territory, the lunar module was sounding alarms and communications with the ground were becoming patchy. Another issue arose too, they were burning way too much fuel.
Since they overshot the planned landing site, they were trying to find a new suitable place to land. If they didn't do it quick enough, they'd burn too much fuel and wouldn't be able to get off the surface.
Armstrong and Aldrin persevered through all of this difficulty though, and with 30 seconds of fuel left, they landed on the moon.
The Danger on the Surface
One might think that now that the astronauts were safely on the surface of the moon that all of the difficult times were behind them, but that wasn't the case for the Apollo 11 crew.
As soon as they touched down, ground control started getting signals from the lander module that the descent-stage fuel line was building pressure. The extreme coldness from the lunar surface had caused an ice buildup in the fuel line, causing a blockage. If this wasn't remedied, it could burst and explode.
Luckily, luck was working in their favor that day, as heat from the engine slowly started melting the fuel line and remedied the blockage.
But there was more...
Now that there weren't any alarms blaring, the question became "Do we moonwalk?"
Because the crew had overshot the original well-studied landing site, no one knew what lied beyond the doors of the lander. Mission control was concerned that the dirt might act like quicksand, or have jagged rocks that could puncture the astronauts' suits.
NASA had sent Surveyor landers to study the lunar surface before, but they had no way of being absolutely sure what the moon would be like.
Finally, the decision was made to initiate an extravehicular activity or EVA. While we now know that the first walk on the moon was a success, lunar dust proved to be no joke. The moon lacks any ability to erode the sharp jagged nature of its particles, so lunar dust was sharp and stuck to absolutely everything. Later missions had troubles with jammed zippers and valves and it reportedly coated everything inside the landing modules.
NASA though there Might be Aliens
After the Apollo 11 crew made it safely back to earth, NASA stuck them in a quarantine chamber for two weeks.
While NASA had studied the moon intensively before the mission, they couldn't be 100% sure that there wasn't an alien superbug living on the moon.
Since the crew of three was exposed to lunar dust during their time in space, scientists felt necessary to isolate them just to be sure that their return wouldn't completely wipe out humanity here on earth.
What the Moon Landings Taught Us
The technological, scientific, and financial investment into the Apollo program didn't end up just being to beat the Soviets in the space race. The technology that resulted from all of this research still continues to impact the world today.
Computerized Flight Control
The Apollo lander had the world's first computerized flight control system. Before these missions, all aircraft were controlled through mechanical connections. NASA engineers felt that this might cause an unnecessary human error during space flight, so they commissioned the building of these computerized systems. Today, nearly all major aircraft are controlled this way.
While up in space, the astronauts also had to eat... and not get food poisoning from old food. This meant that engineers had to tackle food safely intensively prior to the missions. Initial testing demonstrated that existing food safety measures wouldn't cut it, so scientists had to grapple with making new discoveries in food science.
NASA teams actually worked with Pillsbury, who developed a new method of food handling that controlled products from raw material to final distribution. This became the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system and was used in the first Apollo missions and is now mandated for all meat, poultry, seafood, and juice produced in the US.
In the end, NASA isn't just an organization devoted to space, it's an organization devoted to technological development to benefit the entire world. Investment in NASA has long been directly tied to an increase in technological discover, as YouTuber Mark Rober points out in this video.
As humanity prepares to go back to the moon, there's no telling what this new age of space will hold for humanity.