‘It was like watching a science fiction movie, except this was real. We’d done it. We’d put a man on the Moon!’ Like 600 million other people around the world, Barry Smith was glued to his TV on 20 July 1969. Back then, he was a space-obsessed 11-year old, but he’s now Professor Barry Smith, Leadership Fellow for Science and Culture at the Arts & Humanities Research Council. And half a century later, he can still recall the excitement (being allowed to stay up late – Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface just before 3am GMT), the worry (would Armstrong and fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins get back safely?) and the mind-blowing sense of wonder.
We hadn’t invented Post-It notes yet, but we’d managed to send the Apollo 11 rocket 240,000 miles in just over three days and landed on the Moon. ‘The Moon landing changed everything,’ adds Smith. ‘Not just for me but for the whole world. For us. Humanity.’ Chris Lee, chief scientist at the UK Space Agency, was 12 in 1969. ‘The whole family were sitting in front of our small telly. Everybody wanted to see the touchdown. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise how long that was going to take. Only Dad and I lasted the whole night.’
The grainy black and white pictures that flickered across the world’s TV screens showed an almost featureless grey landscape. Buzz Aldrin, who joined Armstrong on the Moon, called it, ‘magnificent desolation’. Armstrong described
a jet-black sky, broken only by the sun and planet earth, which looked ‘beautiful’. The moon’s surface, said Armstrong, was similar to a desert, with ‘red or light-coloured hues’. Then, there was the reduced gravity… although it made
walking difficult, Armstrong was able to jump almost six feet off the surface.
It may be half a century since Armstrong made that giant leap but it’s one of those metaphysical moments that has loomed large over all our lives. Culturally, scientifically, technologically, socially and philosophically, it has
made a huge difference to who we are, what we do and how we think about ourselves.
Apollo 11 is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, on July 16 1969 © NASA
When we examine the Moon landing, it’s a mistake to think of it in isolation. It was much more than just the events of 20 July. There were those billions of hours of design and redesign, the success and failures of earlier missions, the continuing Cold War that provided an extra incentive. The years surrounding 1969 became a so-called Space Age.
Alongside the technology, there was a cultural revolution, too. From The Tornados’ 1962 hit Telstar, to then-unknown pop star David Bowie’s Space Oddity, released just days before Apollo 11 touched down.
The Space Age aesthetic spilled over into the high street. Women wore space bonnets, moon boots and entire outfits in PVC. Designer André Courrèges’s 1964 collection made its models look like extras from a sci-fi movie.
Pierre Cardin even designed a space suit for NASA.
George Lucas, the man behind the Star Wars franchise, has admitted that the look of the films was inspired by the images of Apollo spacecraft returning to earth ‘littered with… candy-bar wrappers… none more exotic than the family station wagon’.
For Dallas Campbell, TV presenter and space geek – his website features a replica of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, available to hire – one of the Space Age’s most iconic moments actually occurred the year before the moon landing.
‘The picture, Earthrise, was taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968,’ explains Campbell. ‘People always talk about the huge leaps forward in technology that came about because of the Moon landing, about memory foam and non-stick frying pans. Is that all we can celebrate after we managed to get to the moon?
‘I think the main spin-offs from Apollo were emotional and philosophical. And they were driven by images such as Earthrise. When you look at this picture, you are looking back at this planet. That’s us. Seeing that beautiful blue planet floating in the great ocean of space made us realise just how fragile life is.’
Anyone old enough to have witnessed the moon landing does seem to remember it vividly. ‘Ever since I saw it as a child, I have looked up to the skies with wonder,’ said Richard Branson last year, as Virgin Galactic flew its first astronauts to the edge of space.
Like all of today’s billionaire spacemen, Branson was inspired by NASA’s drive to make the impossible possible.
Look on YouTube and you’ll see footage of his fellow space explorer, Elon Musk – who wasn’t even born in 1969 – welling up with pride when asked about how he felt about his SpaceX rocket launching from NASA’s legendary moon pad. And as Branson and Musk know, getting into space costs a lot of money.
NASA spent some $25 billion on the Apollo programme – around $150 billion in today’s money. ‘People – and governments – always talk about how much getting into space costs,’ says Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, co-presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night. ‘Let’s look at it from the other side, at what we’ve gained from the space programme over the years.’
Such is the volume of spin-off technology generated by the space programme that NASA has its own magazine called… NASA Spinoff. Since 1976 it’s featured almost 2,000 technologies ‘benefiting life on earth’.
Of course, the NASA spin-off that everybody talks about is computing technology. This was the beginning of the computer age, but the machines that NASA worked with were… basic.
‘Although the computer used for Apollo 11 was well ahead of its day, a modern iPhone has more computing power than NASA had for all of the Apollo missions!’ explains Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, principal of Jesus College, Oxford. ‘The real, extraordinary story of computing,’ he adds, ‘is the actual rate of development. Just six years after we landed on the moon, we had personal computers in the home! That rate of development was given a helping
hand by Apollo and has been going on continuously.’
In some ways, the Space Programme – and in particular the idea of going to the moon – was a victim of its own success. We landed twice in 1969, twice in 1971, twice in 1972 and… that was it. As remarkable as this may seem, going to the moon became a bit boring. Not to mention increasingly expensive.
NASA, of course, continued to explore the universe, as did Russia. These days, they’re joined by a whole host of other nations such as China, India and the European Space Agency, as well as private individuals. Just last month, Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 satellites into orbit as part of a new internet service. Donald Trump has even talked about a 2024 mission that will put the first female astronaut on the Moon.
But, like Dallas Campbell, it’s interesting to wonder whether the biggest benefits to the human race have been emotional and social rather than technological. Going to the Moon gave us a context in which to see ourselves. Specks on a planet that is a speck in a solar system that is a speck in a galaxy that is a speck in the universe.
In the early 1970s, Apollo 9 astronaut, Russell (Rusty) Schweickart made a speech about his spacewalk, 150 miles above the earth. ‘You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are – hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it,
the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, “Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”’
Earth pictured from Apollo 11. © NASA
NASA technology that improved our lives
Safer car tyres
Goodyear came up with a fibrous material that was five times stronger than steel for the Mars Viking Lander.
Although it went on sale only during the late 1970s, it was developed for the Apollo missions.
Scratch resistant lenses
For space helmet visors.Foster-Granthad to buy the licence from NASA.
Vast orders placed by NASA – millions at a time – helped to perfect the technology.
Rechargeable hearing-aid batteries
The tech can be traced back to early NASA efforts with rechargeables.
The space blanket
The heat-reflective sheeting went from cooling spacecraft to warming up patients
Every space craft needs an electricity supply. You could use batteries or nuclear fuel cells, but why not make use of solar power. The photovoltaic effect [the science behind solar power] had been discovered in 1839, but attachment to the space programme pushed the technology forward by several years.
Quartz clocks had been around since the 1920s, but NASA’s input made them even more accurate – to within one minute per year.
Much of today’s firefighting kit is based on materials developed for the Space Programme.
Enriched baby formula
Babies in space? Not quite, but NASA’s Mars-mission research discovered a natural source of Omega-3 fatty acid – normally found in breast milk – that is now added to 90% of all baby formula.
What about those non-stick frying pans?
It’s a myth, sadly. Although Teflon was used by NASA, it was discovered in 1941 and developed by the DuPont company in New Jersey.
Subscribe today for just £15 for 12 issues...