On July 20 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first human footsteps on the moon. The party has already started — you just need to turn on the TV, and there are commemorative specials to be found on almost every channel.
Only a dozen human beings have walked on the moon to date. Six Apollo missions put two astronauts each on the surface. One never made it — the infamous accident that brought us the nail-biter of Apollo 13 — and the last three missions (Apollos 18, 19 and 20) were cancelled due to budget cuts. Some of those rocket parts were eventually used for the Skylab missions and for the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in space.
Current plans call for a return of humans to the moon in 2024, and then to continue on to Mars, but this will only happen if the budget is approved. As the original crewed missions of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo have shown there is no problem our scientists and engineers can’t solve if you throw enough money at it. And this time we have records and first-hand experience to work with, but we’d better hurry: after 50 years many of the original participants have retired or passed on. It is always such a privilege to meet one of the old folks who actually worked on these missions and hear their inspirational stories.
A lot of it wasn’t very glamorous, and the pressure to fulfill Pres. John F. Kennedy’s mandate put a lot of pressure on everyone. Mistakes were made in the race to beat the clock. Three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — died in their Apollo 1 spacecraft on the launch pad when a fire broke out and they were unable to escape.
Their story, and that of many others, will be told again this month, and their sacrifice will be remembered. From the lab assistants all the way up to the top brass administrators, everyone worked extremely hard to make this ultimate dream happen.
Primarily, landing on the moon was a political victory, meant to triumph over the Russians who had already snagged just about every other “first” in human spaceflight. All the astronauts were military test pilots — except one: Harrison Schmitt, who was the only scientist to ever walk on the moon with Apollo 17. All the others went through extensive geology training so the Apollo missions would have at least some lasting scientific impact. The rocks they brought back have revolutionized our knowledge of both the Earth and the moon, and they are the highlight of every museum collection lucky enough to have one, so visitors can get a kick out of touching an actual piece of the moon. No matter how often you visit Kennedy Space Center, the thrill of rubbing your fingertip across the piece of moon rock there never wears off.
Apollo hardware is now the stuff of museums. Important artifacts like Saturn V rocket parts and the original control center have been lovingly restored in celebration of the 50th anniversary, and the documentaries are all over the news and TV. Original footage is still being discovered, and old computers are being retro-engineered so we can access the original data again.
But for those of you for whom watching TV just isn’t enough to celebrate this milestone of human exploration there are real hands-on opportunities as well: The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., is planning to break a world record for the most rockets launched simultaneously. Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969, so the Center will hold its event next week on July 16. What if you can’t make it there to participate directly? Never fear! You can launch your own rocket — any rocket — on July 16, and be a part of the overall action, which will include rocket launches all day long all over the world. You can read more about it at https://www.rocketcenter.com/apollo50/GlobalLaunch, find out what type of rocket you might be able to build, and also register your launch online.
If an actual rocket scares you a bit there are plans right on the site on how to make stomp rockets out of soda bottles, or even tiny soda straw rockets you launch with a puff of air. There’s something for all skill levels and all ages!
And finally, be sure to visit the official 50th anniversary website at https://www.nasa.gov/specials/apollo50th/index.html for photos, videos, events and everything else you ever wanted to know about it!
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org