50 years ago this week, American astronauts took off on Apollo 11 in what would be the first successful mission to land on the moon's surface. KRCU is celebrating this anniversary by speaking with Southeast professors Dr. Joel Rhodes and Dr. Michael Cobb about the history and science behind the "one giant leap for mankind."
A Historian Timelines the Moon Landing
“Not only the United States, but it’s as if a great chunk of humanity paused on July 20, 1969.”
Southeast Professor Joel Rhodes says he believes the troubled backdrop of the late 1960s makes the success of the Apollo 11 mission “all that more marvelous.”
“By February of 1968, it’s pretty apparent something’s gone horribly wrong in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, a political force of nature, has decided he’s not going to seek another term as president,” says Rhodes. “Within a couple of days, Martin Luther King is assassinated, and then within a couple of weeks Bobby Kennedy is killed as well.”
Anti-war protests struck college campuses at the same time, while race riots arose in inner cities. Then, in 1969, Nixon took office.
“The nation is more divided than it has been since the Civil War,” he says. “Then that summer you have what is maybe one of the crowning achievements of humankind.”
The world seemed to respond to the moon landing as an accomplishment that transcended national achievement, and according to Rhodes, it “certainly wasn’t Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins that were there. But we’re all going to the moon.”
Kennedy had even reached out to other nations, including Russia, to make the moon mission a global effort.
The Cold War set the context for much of society during the time, and the threat that the Soviet Union might lurch ahead of the United States in the Space Race meant the USSR might gain the high ground in a new zone of conflict. Rhodes says there was a major concern about how space travel could be weaponized.
“I think we’ve lost sight of the fact in the warm afterglow of Apollo 11 that the space program wasn’t always politically very popular,” he says.
President John F. Kennedy set the goal for the trip to and back from the moon early that decade, and that provoked a response of skepticism that it would turn out to be an expensive failure, or “moondoggle,” as Rhodes put it.
“In 1961, when John Kennedy had made that call, the sheer audacity of that had been, I think, stunning to most people,” says Rhodes.
Rhodes believes Kennedy wanted to make the Lunar Landing the climax of his second term.
There were three clear stages of the mission to the moon, starting with the Mercury Program to actually get men into space, followed by the Gemini Program to dock ships, and then the Apollo Mission concluding. President Johnson kept the fires lit in the space program.
In his experience, Rhodes says it seems Kennedy’s assassination solidified the desire to reach the moon to live out the president’s legacy. When he spoke to astronaut and Southeast graduate Linda Godwinin 2014, she said NASA’s culture changed as a result, and all the lingering doubt about the feasibility of the mission had been washed away.
An Astronomer Puts Moongazing into Focus
“It always strikes me that every human being that has lived on the planet, since time beginning, has looked up and saw the moon, and saw it exactly the way that I’m seeing it,” Southeast Professor Michael Cobb says. “It makes me feel like there's a connection between me and all of humanity that has preceded me.”
Many years of work was finally realized in July of 1969, says Cobb. Hundreds, if not thousands of people - including government workers and contractors - worked together to make the moon landing possible.
“I can’t imagine solving those equations with a slide ruler and pen and pencil,” he says.
The amount of mathematics it took back then that is now easily done by simulation, even in the classes he teaches, is staggering.
Cobb says he used a camera to take a photo of his black-and-white TV screen when Armstrong took his famous step onto the lunar surface. In comparison to the excellent visuals documentaries might present today, he says the public would only get to look at snapshots of control rooms. Another thing lost in how the shuttles are depicted is their massive size.
“If you visit Houston or you visit Florida and look at some of the space hardware, you realize the size of the things, the size of the nozzles on the Saturn V Rocket were just huge,” he says. “From an engineering point-of-view - making sure the thing doesn’t fall over on the launchpad - it was quite an endeavor.”
Between the analog equipment and the hand-soldered, hand-wound cables, Cobb says it’s amazing that the “thing worked at all.” Originally, different spacecraft would be shot at the moon and collide with it in order to take photos.
“We really transitioned from crashing things into the moon to landing people on the moon in a very, very short timespan,” he says.
The need to maneuver ahead of Russia in order to have strategic advantage helped to drive the Space Race, he says. Since the public did not have such easy access to information as it does today, he compared the Soviet Union to something of a “bogeyman” who lurked in the background.
“At the time, Sputnik really shook everybody up,” he says. “We realized that just as easily could’ve been a missile or a bomb.”
Part of the decade-long mission meant setting up further projects for the scientists and contractors NASA had assembled into teams, Cobb says. Otherwise the “institutional knowledge” would’ve been dissolved back into the public.
“Going to the moon certainly advances technology,” he says. “NASA’s decision to privatize space, of course, has made all new industries.”
Astronomy as a whole has come a long way since the start of Cobb’s career. Remembering a time when he and others in the field debated whether there are planets in orbit of other stars, she says astronomers today are working out ways to measure the atmospheres of these planets. And, rather than in-depth work using equipment, much of it is now automated.
“For me, it’s not as romantic, especially coming up... in a time when it was all hands on,” says Cobb.
That July night when so many were watching those first steps on the dusty rock continues to serve as inspiration.
“We accomplished so much when we really had so little to work with,” he says. “And we were united as a country.”