When will we go back to the Moon?

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. It remains one of the great moments in human history, but what happened next? At the time, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I assumed that it would only be a few years before humans reached Mars. Half a century later, it sill hasn’t happened.

Six more missions to the Moon followed Apollo XI, of which only the drama of Apollo XIII and the survival of Jim Lovell and his crew made any kind of headlines. A total of twelve people – all men – walked on the Moon. Of the twelve, four are still alive including Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82. Apollo XVII – the last lunar mission – returned to Earth on 19 December 1972, and no spacecraft carrying a crew has since left Earth orbit.

The exploration of the Solar System has been carried out purely through robot space probes. By 1969, American and Soviet probes had flown past Venus and Mars, returning data and – in the case of Mars – a few low-resolution images. Since then, space probe have reached every planet in the Solar System (including Pluto), with long-duration orbital missions of all the planets out to Saturn, and the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. There have been landings on Mars, Venus, Titan, and several asteroids and comets. There have been active rovers on Mars since 2004. At the beginning of this year, the New Horizons probe returned photographs from the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule.

But in comparison to the 1960s, human activities in space have progressed at a snail’s pace. The Russians never went to the Moon and turned their attention to space stations in low Earth orbit, which in the long term was more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States. The MIR space station was in service from 1986 to 2000, and was permanently occupied between February 1990 and August 1999. There has been a permanent human presence in space in the International Space Station since November 2000.

Much of the technology of 2019 was certainly science-fiction in 1969 – computers have evolved from room-filling machines affordable only by large companies to mundane household appliances. Much of the gadgetry from the original series of Star Trek – which made its way over here from the States a fortnight before the first Moon Landing – seems quite primitive compared with present-day smartphones, iPads, and the like.

So what of crew-carrying spacecraft? The Russian Soyuz, which first flew in 1967, is still in service. The Chinese Shenzhou – currently the only other crew-carrying spacecraft in service – is based heavily on Soyuz technology. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has been without the means to launch humans into space, and is having to thumb lifts from the Russians to the ISS. This will change when the privately operated SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner spacecraft come into service later this year.

To date, only the US, Russia, and China have sent humans into space, although citizens of forty countries have flown in space. India plans to launch a crew-carrying spacecraft in December 2021. No other nation currently has plans for an indigenous human spaceflight program.

American plans for an expedition to Mars have come and gone over the years. The Orion program, instigated by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster, has yet to fly with a crew. More recently, the Artemis program has a stated goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. Proposals include the Lunar Orbital Platform – a space station in lunar orbit, from which landers will take humans to the surface.

The Russians are working on similar proposals with a timescale for the 2030s and a Soyuz replacement known as Federation. Presumably this name-checks the Russian Federation (as Soyuz did the Soviet Union) rather than Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The Chinese are reviewing preliminary plans for a lunar expedition in the 2030s.

Ten years ago, I expressed the hope that I would live long enough to see humans land on Mars, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.

The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and – no less important – before the Russians. The program was criticised because of the many problems back on Earth. Sadly, these problems have not gone away. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, but it was no more than a brief thaw in East-West relations. It is now clear that geopolitical competition rather than communism vs capitalism lies at the root of the hostility.

The international situation now – eighteen years after 9/11 – is as bad as it has been in my lifetime. Worldwide, the rise of the populist Right continues unchecked. Here in the UK, we have had almost a decade of Tory-inflicted austerity following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the last three years has been dominated by the incompetent shambles of Brexit. Yet these problems are inconsequential compared to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on space. At minimum, self-sustaining colonies on Mars and the Moon would increase the chances of our survival as a species. I won’t be around in another fifty years time, but I can only hope that by the time we reach the centenary of Apollo XI the world is in a better state than it is now and humanity is firmly established as a multi-planet species.

One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

Mission
Elapsed
Time
102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You’re looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it’s looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light’s on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that’s good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I’m going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That’s a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM the Queen. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more manned missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single manned spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him “a coward, a liar, and a thief.” Aldrin – then aged 72 – punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city’s prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to unmanned space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009