By Holly Giles
Saturday, July 20 2019 marked 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission to first put man on the moon and those ever-famous words of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” by commander Neil Armstrong. It may seem moon landings are an achievement of the past, but NASA has assured us that 50 years on, the moon definitely hasn’t been forgotten about however it has now changed from the destination to the stepping stone onwards.
Between July 1969 and December 1972, 12 humans walked on the moon, totalling a time of 300 hours. Their visits were packed with experiments and data collection of over 2200 samples of the moon’s surface. The material they returned has revolutionised our understanding of the moon and, as a result, the whole solar system around us. The rocks are stored at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and are treated as a priceless scientific resource. With each advancement of technology, we get closer to being able to use these samples to answer questions of the moon’s origin specifically, “how was the moon formed?”. The current theory behind this is that the Earth was once spinning very fast and a piece broke off; a theory aided by analysis showing the collected moon rocks are almost identical in composition to Earth’s. This shows the scientific significance of the data collected and the impact the moon landings continue to have.
Another key impact of the moon landings is the development of the ‘Moon First’ approach; the idea that the moon can serve as a space for us to test out future technologies for us to then use on mars. This was accelerated by President Trump in 2018 when he tasked NASA with the goal of returning to the moon by 2024; NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine responded with the statement “This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay. And then we will use what we learn on the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.” Artemis is the sister of Apollo and the name of the new mission to the moon by 2024, including the first woman and the next man.
As well as the first female spacewalker, the next generation of astronauts are likely to look quite different, says Lisa Messeri, but urges transparency is needed in the reasons for space flight; “If we are going for mining, then say that; say this is what we want to invest in. If it’s to expand human frontiers or inspire the next generation, then great, send artists.” In 2018 a Japanese billionaire bought all the seats in Elon Musk’s capsule in order to send artists and performers to be inspired and to then create work based on what they see. Overall this means the days of the white, American, engineer-based, male astronauts are likely to be far behind us as the powers behind the new generation of space travellers aim to be more representative of the population as a whole. This is as significant a stride in space science as any and should not be underestimated.