“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” –Neil A. Armstrong, July 20, 1969
Fifty years ago, on July 21 at 02:56:15 UTC (July 20, 20:56:15 MDT), Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the lunar module Eagle and, after describing the powdery grains of the moon surface, stepped off the landing pad of the Eagle to become the first human ever to set foot on the moon. The Apollo 11 spaceflight marked the first time humanity had ever successfully set foot on another world, marking the fulfilment of President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that America would put a man on the moon eight years earlier. The Space Race had been in full swing when President Kennedy made his speech: the Soviet Union had beaten the United States to virtually every first, from launching Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, and then followed up with Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961 to become the first man in space. The perceived gap in technology between the USA and USSR prompted the Americans to divert an incredible amount of resources, both financial and human capital, into space exploration research. Drawing on scientist Wernher von Braun’s expertise, the Americans transformed their initial rockets, intended to carry a nuclear payload into space-faring vehicles. Thus, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded to develop peaceful exploration of space. While the Americans had seen success with the Mercury-Redstone 3 rockets, which led Alan Shepard to become the first American in space, a goal with the sheer scale and scope of anything approaching a moon landing demanded dedicated rockets, mastery of docking two vessels in space and extra-vehicular activity (EVA). NASA The Gemini program was borne as a result of this; running from 1961 to 1966, NASA thus devised the necessary techniques to ensure the success of the Apollo programme. With the techniques better characterised, NASA would turn its attention to development of better rockets. von Braun would become deeply involved with the Saturn project, and after several iterations, resulted in the Saturn V, which remains to this day, the single most powerful rocket to have ever been developed. Unmanned flights with different iterations saw issues ironed out, and on January 27, 1967, Apollo 1 was marked as as the first manned test of the spacecraft. Tragically, a fire broke out and killed Virgil I. Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. The entire program was thrown into jeopardy, forcing the redesign of the Apollo command module and implementation of new safety features. After rigorous testing, and with several more unmanned flights, coupled with success from the Apollo 8 and 10 missions, NASA believed that they were ready to attempt a manned lunar landing.
After Armstrong had touched down on the lunar surface, Buzz Aldrin followed suit nineteen minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin erected the American flag on the lunar surface, conversed with President Richard Nixon and then set up a range of experiments on the lunar surface. They also managed to collect six kilograms of lunar material for transport back to Earth. Twenty-one-and-a-half hours later, they boarded the lunar module and rejoined Michael Collins in orbit, before performing a burn to carry out trans-Earth injection that would send them back home. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins returned to Earth on July 24 at 16:50:35 UTC (09:50:35 MDT), splashing down in the South Pacific. They were picked up by the USS Hornet, and by the end of their eight-day mission, had their accomplishments watched by over a fifth of the world’s population. Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11’s historic achievement highlighted the strength of not just the American engineers, scientists and astronauts, but also reflected on the human spirit as a whole: when President Kennedy had announced the American intent to land on the moon in 1962, the technology did not exist. The fledgling American space program had been bested by the Soviets at each turn, and had been hampered by a lack of public interest, as well as limited funding. However, with his speech, President Kennedy emphasised that the lunar program was to be done to signify the freedom Americans had over their destiny and romanticised space. Despite initial opposition, interest in conquering space had been piqued, and the United States would ultimately direct 25 billion dollars (153 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation) towards the Apollo programme. At its height, Apollo employed 400000 people and had support from over 20000 academic institutions and industrial firms. The sheer scale and scope of the project propelled not just American, but the whole of humanity forwards: the technologies needed to put man on the moon resulted in creativity, ingenuity and innovation of the likes that our species had not seen before. To ensure the safety of the astronauts, radical developments were made to ensure the reliability of every nut and bolt that went into the program. The technology and science that resulted in Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic achievement have far flung effects even today: the very computers and smart-phones that have become so ubiquitous now owe their existence to advances in integrated circuitry from the Apollo programme.
The success of the Apollo programme is ultimately attributed to the gargantuan team effort and collaboration between each of the 400000 employees at NASA and countless others from the institutes and organisations that contributed. For the most part, humanity’s most recognisable inventions were prototyped, developed and tested by scientists of renown. Powered flight comes from the Wright Brothers, and Thomas Edison came about his inventions through perseverance, dedication and inspiration. However, during the Second World War, a desperation to keep atomic technology out of Nazi hands saw the formation of the Manhattan Project, which employed 130000 employees at a cost of 2 billion dollars (13 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation). As humanity moved forwards, innovation became the result of a coordinated team effort rather than through individual genius. Both the Manhattan Project and Apollo Programme are a constant reminder that exceptional achievement comes through people working together, lending their individual talents and skills towards a common goal: while von Braun was doubtlessly a remarkable rocket engineer, his contributions to the Saturn V and its unparalleled engines were only a part of the programme. Numerous engineers and scientists worked on everything from the computer guidance programs in the command module, to designing the shape of the lunar module, from calculating the optimal course for trans-lunar injection, to designing the space suits themselves and devising ways of keeping sufficient consumables onboard the flight. Apollo 11 thus acts as one of the most profound and unequivocal examples of what is possible when people are unified, working together in spite of their differences towards a shared goal. Great science is invariably the result of teamwork and collaboration, and so, fifty years after the first successful moon landing, Apollo is the reminder of why it is important to look past our differences and celebrate our commonalities as human beings.
Commentary and Personal Reflection
- While the Apollo programme is considered an overwhelming success today, the programme did see its share of troubles: by 1963, opponents wondered if the program was a wise expenditure, and even NASA’s engineers felt President Kennedy’s expectations were unrealistic. The Apollo 1 fire further cast doubt on the safety on the program. However, progress in the programme continued, and on the morning of the launch, on June 16, Apollo 11 stood ready at the launch pad. The images in this post were sourced from the 2019 documentary Apollo 11, which featured original 70mm footage, as well as 60 and 35mm footage from period recordings.
- The Saturn V is the most powerful rocket ever used, capable of lifting 140000 kilograms to low earth orbit. The first stage, S-IC, could produce 7891000 lbf (pounds-force) and had a burn time of 168 seconds. After the first stage was expended and discarded, the second stage (S-II) kicked in and accelerated the craft to orbital velocity. Finally, the third stage (S-IVB) ignited and burned for six minutes to push the craft to escape velocity, preparing it for trans-lunar injection. The command module and lunar module docked after the third stage was separated, forty minutes into trans-lunar injection.
- Images captured from Apollo show how small and fragile the Earth looks from the void of space. A comparatively thin layer of atmosphere and our magnetic field protects us from the hazards of the cosmos, and acts as a constant reminder of how frail life on earth is. The Apollo 11 program as a whole was very humbling to learn about, and since I first read about it as a primary school student, the outstanding achievements of the astronauts, engineers and technicians inspired me. While I subsequently discovered that my ability for mathematics was inadequate for me to become an engineer, the tough and competent mindset NASA held to their staff stuck with me.
- “Tough and competent” is a phrase coined by aerospace engineer Gene Kranz, who oversaw numerous operations and directed the Apollo 11 landings. In response to Apollo 1, Kranz’s doctrine was simple: tough meant that one must be accountable for what they do, or fail to do. One should not compromise their responsibilities in any way. Competent meant that one will not take anything for granted and always have the right knowledge and skill set to see something through. Kranz intended this to constantly remind his staff of the price of failure, although his principles are correct and apply to most anything. This forms the basis for how I conduct myself, and how I expect those around me to conduct themselves: because it’s an integral part of me, I’ve decided to change the blog’s banner to reflect on my credos.
- After a smooth trans-lunar injection, Apollo 11 fired its main engines to enter lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module, while Collins remained behind to control the command module. During their descent, the guidance computer returned alarm codes 1201 and 1202, indicating that it had overflowed and would delay other tasks while more urgent computations were carried out. Fuel was running out, and passing over a boulder-strewn field with rocks that Aldrin noted “were as big as cars”, Armstrong focused on landing. He touched down with around 50 seconds of burn time remaining, and informed mission control that they were on the ground.
- As the first humans to gaze upon the moon with their own eyes, Armstrong and Aldrin would have seen a sight quite unlike any other: the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, a flatter region of the moon composed of basaltic plains. The rest of the moon is dotted with craters, and thanks to the lack of an atmosphere, craters have remained relatively untouched since their original impacts. The Sea of Tranquility faces the Earth – thanks to tidal locking, the far side of the moon is not visible from the surface.
- Three-and-a-half-hours after landing, both Aldrin and Armstrong had suited up and depressurised the lunar module. After struggling to get out of the lunar module, Armstrong began making his way down the ladder. The image quality of photos from the lunar surface are of a high quality, but video footage was shot with slow-scan cameras that produced a signal incompatible with television signals. The resulting broadcast was captured by recording it on a standard camera and played back on TV, producing a lower quality image.
- Here is the moment that defined the 1960s – Neil Armstrong’s timeless first step and transmission from the surface has been immortalised. While Armstrong intended to say “…first step for a man”, static in the transmission resulted in the resulting quote being misrepresented as “first step for man”. Some of original tapes from Apollo 11 were lost, and existing footage was retouched instead: with current technologies, documentaries like Apollo 11 feature HD footage of content from the 1960s.
- Armstrong reported no trouble moving about on the lunar surface, where the gravity is a sixth of that on Earth’s. Despite concerns about the backpack creating balance problems, movement was not a problem for Armstrong and Aldrin. With both men on the surface, the next task was to plant the American flag on the surface. This was the part that Aldrin was particularly worried about: millions were watching, and the soil properties made it difficult to plant the flag.
- With some effort, the flag was planted, and here, Aldrin stands beside the flag. Many of the photographs from the lunar surface depict Aldrin – Armstrong had been operating the camera and therefore did not appear in many of them. While Armstrong may have been selected to be the first man on the moon based on the belief that Armstrong was better suited for this historic decision for his personality (Christopher Kraft and other members made the adjustment to the flight plan so the commander would leave the space craft first), Aldrin’s appearance in almost all of the photos means that he shared in the glory of this accomplishment in an equally timeless and memorable fashion.
- President Richard Nixon phoned the astronauts to personally congratulate them, and while he originally planned a longer speech, he was convinced to keep it short. Here is one of the footprints on the surface: with no erosion, the footprint likely is still preserved exactly as it appeared fifty years previously unless an impact event erased it. On the other hand, the nylon flags planted on the moon were not designed to resist the conditions of space and will have degraded after five decades of exposure to space.
- With the formalities done, Armstrong and Aldrin set about preparing the lunar experiments, including a laser reflector and seismic experiments. While limited in their time on the surface, and only wandering 60 meters from the lunar module at most, subsequent Apollo missions greatly extended the astronaut’s stay on the surface in duration and provided a lunar roving vehicle that allowed later astronauts to travel 35 kilometres.
- My interest in the Apollo 11 mission and space travel as a whole began when I was a primary student. I had received Barbara Hehner’s First on The Moon. Featuring narration told from Jan Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin’s daughter, the book recounts her experiences and more details about the three astronaut’s flight to the moon, their experiments on the surface and their return home. The book was published in 1999 and combined technical details with a highly accessible tone, making it easy to read for young readers. Excitement about the moon turned to excitement about prior and later developments: in going to the library, I ended up learning a great deal about Sputnik to the beginnings of the International Space Station.
- Curiosity about what led to the Space Race and my happenstance finding of Steven Rys’s US Military Power (published in 1983) is the origin of my interests in the Cold War, and the Second World War. Here, Buzz Aldrin sets about preparing the lunar experiments. These are critical aspects of the moon landing to provide the first set of instruments on the moon that were placed there by human hands: previously, lunar probes were landed successfully. Apollo 11 details these moments in much greater detail than First Man, which, while not exactly the most accurate portrayal of Neil Armstrong or some of his experiences, was a solid movie all around.
- This is the laser reflector that was a part of the lunar laser ranging experiment, where an Earth-based laser is directed at the moon. Signal from the laser reflecting back is then recorded, and despite the laser beam being some six and a half kilometers wide, hitting the reflector is still incredibly difficult, and getting a photon back is a similar challenge. However, the time difference resulting provides an exceptionally precise measurement of how far away the moon is.
- When I first watched First Man back in January, aside from the disappointment that Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong was not entirely accurate, I was utterly blown away by the film’s cinematography, composition, camera angles and soundtrack. The film was exceptionally enjoyable despite the minor hiccoughs in accuracy, and overall, I was thoroughly impressed to the point where it actually became a little difficult to resume watching anime again.
- After their mission, Aldrin and Armstrong entered the lunar module and prepared to launch back into lunar orbit. They would dock with the command module, where Collins was waiting, and after discarding the lunar module, fired the command module’s main engine for a trans-Earth injection. This phase of the mission was much more relaxed, although one final challenge remained with re-entry. This was no problem in the end, and the command module’s cone splashed down in the south Pacific. The crew was picked up by helicopters from the USS Hornet.
- The United States would go on to launch five more successful missions: Apollo 13 suffered an oxygen tank explosion that crippled the command module, and forced the astronauts to utilise the lunar module as a lifeboat. Beyond this, later Apollo missions spent several days on the lunar surface and even bought a lunar roving vehicle to extend the astronaut’s reach. Overall, the Apollo programme returned 382 kilograms of lunar material and paved the way for lunar research of an unprecedented scope. In addition, the Saturn rockets were also used to launch Skylab, America’s first space station. The Soviets had turned their attention towards space stations after losing the race to the moon, and in 1975, as a sign of détente, conducted a joint mission that would be known as the Apollo-Soyuz mission that marked the end of the Space Race.
- Since then, the United States ran the Space Shuttle programme between 1981 and 2011, and today, space exploration has slowed in pacing, although privately-funded initiatives have rekindled interest. Although projects like SpaceX has a ways to go in matching the sheer amount of human and financial capital of NASA during the Apollo era, the freedoms that private firms have may allow for quicker progress once the technology becomes developed. While man has not reached the moon since 1972, the world has advanced quite a ways since then, especially in the realm of telecommunications, microprocessors, information technology, health and medicine.
- Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins spent 21 days in quarantine to ensure that they did not bring back any pathogens from the moon, even though this was remote. In August, the astronauts participated in a massive ticker-tape parade, and the first successful mission set precedence for the next six missions, five of which succeeded. With this special post now in the books, I will be briefly returning to write about Sounan Desu Ka? and Dumbbell wa nan kilo moteru? on short order, before closing off the month with a special topics post on The Giant Walkthrough Brain, a project that is an excellent example of what modern computing is capable of and why during this age, effective science communication becomes ever more important.
It is therefore no exaggeration when I consider the Apollo 11 to be the most outstanding representation of humanity at its absolute best. When the brightest minds came together to collaborate on a leviathan task, the results spoke for themselves, speaking to how humanity can, with the right effort and determination, the right toughness and competence, can accomplish incredible feats of ingenuity that really exemplify what it means to be human. Even though I come much later and never witnessed the Apollo 11 launch and landings for myself, the sheer scale of the Apollo program and its impact on the world are something that I appreciate each and every day. As an iOS developer, I owe my entire discipline to the developments that came out of research for reliable, powerful integrated circuits to ensure the safety and success of Apollo. These integrated circuits developed into microprocessors, which have advanced at a bewildering rate. As I develop software to better connect the world through our mobile devices, it is humbling to know that my aging iPhone 6 could have, with its 1.6 billion transistors and capability to carry out 3.36 billion instructions per second, is around 32600 times faster than the computers that carried out the Apollo missions. This roughly corresponds with a 120 million times increase in performance, with the implication that my iPhone 6 could simultaneously manage 120 million Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Fifty years represents a considerable amount of time, and I recall that when I was granted my Master’s of Science in Computer Science, alumni of the university from a half-century ago commented on the sophistication of my graduate thesis project, which was unimaginable at their time. Apollo had set the precedence for technology, and as we move ahead into the future, I expect that five decades from now, the kind of technology that will be available will far surpass what we can presently imagine. The legacy of the Apollo 11 programme is one that is to endure: besides the accomplishments from Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, we also must thank the hundreds of thousands of engineers, scientists and support staff who contributed to what remains humanity’s greatest achievement as a species.