50 years after Apollo 11, scientists describe the moon landing’s legacy and how it inspired them
Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 spacecraft blasted off with one goal: to put humans on the moon for the first time.
The Americans' lunar module Eagle touched down on our closest celestial neighbour on July 20, 1969.
An audience of about 650 million people watched their television screens, mesmerized as commander Neil Armstrong climbed down the lander’s ladder and stepped out onto the fine, powdery lunar surface, making his famous proclamation: "That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
The historic event captured the imaginations of people around the world, and is considered one of the most celebrated moments in human history.
Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar surface. They left their footprints behind, gathered rocks and moon dust for research and planted the American flag, which capped off a decades-long quest to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
To this day, the Apollo 11 mission remains a compelling story of technological prowess and astronautical genius that helped pave the way for more manned space missions.
To mark the 50th anniversary, Quirks & Quarks spoke to Canadian astronauts and a variety of scientists from all disciplines about the moon landing’s legacy and how it inspired them to push the boundaries of human knowledge and achievement.
Julie Payette, Canada's Governor General and former member of the Canadian Astronaut Corps, said the Apollo missions were "a revelation" to her.
She admits to having few memories from the day of the moon landing itself — she was just five years old at the time. But Payette became so inspired by the work of astronauts that she dreamed of one day pursuing this kind of work herself.
"I wanted to put on the spacesuit, to get into the rocket, to fly to the moon — and more than anything else, I wanted to drive that lunar jeep," she said.
But in the 1970s, the idea of a female Canadian astronaut seemed nearly as outlandish as the moon landing itself. The creation of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the mission that put the first Canadian in space were still decades away.
"I didn't realize at the time that I had very little in common with those Apollo astronauts," Payette recalled.
"They were guys; I'm a girl ... They were military pilots and they had been everywhere; I had never been in an airplane. And they spoke English … my mother tongue is French. But it didn't matter to me. I still wanted to be an astronaut."
Payette would go on to study engineering in university, "just in case" there was even the slightest possibility that her dream could become reality.
In June 1992, Payette became one of four astronauts selected by the CSA from a pool of over 5,000 applicants. She went on to become the CSA's chief astronaut from 2000 to 2007.
Between 1999 and 2009, Payette completed two space flights and worked on the International Space Station. She logged over 25 days in space during her time at the Canadian Astronaut Corps.
"There is no dream too big, no matter the goal. It can be achieved with perseverance and hard work," she said. "And the good news? The sky is not the limit."
The wonderful thing about the lunar planetary missions is that its outcome goes beyond a country’s border.
- Seiji Sugita
Seiji Sugita, a planetary scientist in Japan, credits the Apollo 11 mission as a galactic pioneer that fuelled new frontiers in space exploration.
NASA’s Viking project to Mars and the Soviet Union’s Venera missions to Venus, for example, were all born from "Apollo’s excitement," he said.
The missions were a powerful driver of a fledgling industry that eventually saw the rise of new Apollo-driven technologies, he explained.
Sugita, who is also a professor of Earth and planetary science at the University of Tokyo and a scientist at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, worked on Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission. Last week the spacecraft collected underground samples from the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu — the first to successfully do so on an asteroid. Researchers hope to use the soil samples to find possible clues to the origin of the solar system. Hayabusa2’s next task will be to safely return to Earth with the compounds. It’s expected to leave the asteroid later this year and return home at the end of 2020.
Since the first American flag was planted on the moon, space exploration has developed into an international collaboration, according to Sugita.
"The wonderful thing about the lunar planetary missions is that its outcome goes beyond a country’s border," said Sugita.
"Even if these missions may be influenced by, or done by, a nation’s pride or for other political reasons, finding out [about] other worlds is always exciting and valuable to any people in any country."
The missions empowered me to be my highest self. They encouraged me to dream and to sacrifice.
- Robert Thirsk
Former astronaut Robert (Bob) Thirsk spent more time in orbit than any other Canadian.
As a child, he was inspired to float freely outside Earth's atmosphere by the space race of the 1950s and watching Armstrong walk on the lunar surface — a moment he described as "euphoric."
"The missions empowered me to be my highest self. They encouraged me to dream and to sacrifice," he said.
Thirsk, now 65, made two trips to space: a 17-day mission aboard the shuttle Columbia in 1996 and another on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2009.
The second voyage saw him live on the International Space Station for 188 days — more than six months — where he participated in dozens of experiments, many of them studying the endurance of the human body in space. NASA researchers intend to use the information to one day build space colonies on the moon and Mars.
"I owe my satisfying career to the brave Apollo astronauts, engineers and managers who inspired me as a child," he said.
Asked how the Apollo 11 moon landing changed society, Thirsk said it shifted our conception of humanity’s role in space and allowed us to envision new ways to explore and populate other worlds.
"Perhaps Apollo’s greatest benefit was it inspired our society to take on near-impossible challenges — to do things not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard."
Mona Nemer believes the moon landing marked the moment science became cool.
"It inspired a whole generation to become scientists, astronauts and engineers," Canada's Chief Scientific Adviser told Quirks & Quarks.
Nemer vividly recalls the day the Apollo Lunar Module touched down on the moon.
She was 12, still living in Lebanon, where she says science was just emerging in the late 1960s. She remembers huddling around the TV with a group of friends, watching the BBC broadcast.
"I think it was early morning Beirut time when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander, and we all cheered," she said.
"At that very moment, so many dreams and ambitions were born. Watching the moon landing, it convinced me of the power of science to uncover the mysteries of our universe and to help us understand what exists out there that is still unknown to us."
Nemer harnessed that power of science in her career in molecular biology research. She’s discovered several genes essential for cardiac health, and contributed to the development of several diagnostic tests.
To Nemer, the moon landing showed that science can be the key to human progress.
"As an adult scientist, I came to realize that what basically started as a pure technological challenge for humankind has produced technologies and innovations that have changed the course of history,” she said.
“[It] goes to demonstrate that if you're looking to change the present, looking around is only half as good as looking beyond, and the moon landing set a new boundary for looking beyond."
Data scientist Arun Nemani believes the world would still be "in the Dark Ages" if it weren't for the moon landing.
He said that much of modern science wouldn't be possible without the innovations inspired by the Apollo 11 mission.
"One of the most important scientific and technological advances derived from the moon landing was the modern transistor. It enables technologies ranging from Google search, to smartphones, to modern surgery," he told Quirks & Quarks in an email.
Recently, Nemani’s research examined how monitoring novice surgeons' brain activity can help them evaluate their skill level during a simulated surgery.
We're all in this together.
- Dafydd (Dave) Williams
Former astronaut Dr. Dafydd (Dave) Williams sat glued to the family TV on the evening of July 20, 1969, as grainy, black-and-white images of the moon landing broadcast on CBS.
“I’ll never forget Walter Cronkite saying, ‘Man on the moon,’ after touchdown,” recalled Williams, who was 15 at the time.
“We watched in awe, and after seconds in silence, my father proclaimed: ‘That was incredible.’”
The Saskatoon-born emergency medicine specialist was first selected as an astronaut by the Canadian Space Agency in 1992. Since the program’s launch more than three decades ago, only 14 Canadians have been recruited as astronauts.
The Apollo 11 moon landing, he says, confirmed his desire to leave Earth’s atmosphere and make history himself.
However, this dream was actually born years before that.
In 1961, just shortly before his seventh birthday, he watched commander Alan Shepard — the first American in space and one of NASA’s first recruits to its astronaut program — blast off.
Williams would go on to represent Canada during two space missions.
His first flight was in 1998 aboard the shuttle Columbia as part of a life science mission. He spent 16 days on experiments that focused on the effect of weightlessness on the brain and nervous system.
In 2007, Williams completed his second space flight aboard the shuttle Endeavour to assist in the construction of the International Space Station.
During that mission, he established a Canadian record of 17 hours and 47 minutes in three spacewalks — the most performed in a single journey.
Williams said he experienced the same awe-like feeling as he did watching Armstrong during his second spacewalk.
“While riding on the end of the Canadarm, looking at the Earth beneath me … there were no boundaries separating countries visible from space.”
At that moment, he finally understood the perspective of our planet originally shared by the Apollo astronauts.
“‘We’re all in this together,’ I thought.”
Mary-Lynn Dickson remembers being awoken by her mother to watch the TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out on the lunar module ladder and step out onto the moon’s rocky surface.
She sat glued to the TV in her family’s cottage as video of the momentous event was broadcast live from the moon.
But she says the dream of walking on the moon “captured my imagination” nearly a decade earlier.
“I closely followed each [Apollo] mission by collecting local newspaper clippings, which I would carefully paste into a scrapbook, and reading any books I could find about space and rockets,” said Dickson.
While Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar escapade naturally made the headlines, it was the team of experts inside Apollo Mission Control Center who guided the astronauts on their journey that caught her attention.
“The engineers and scientists working behind the scenes fascinated me,” she said.
“The space program and the moon landing engaged my curiosity and wonder. The possibility of exploration and discovery was exciting, as was the chance to work hard for the team to achieve a goal.”
Dickson credits the Apollo 11 mission with encouraging her to pursue a career in oceanography.
She is now the director of Canada’s United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea program, an international regime responsible for overseeing the usage and sovereignty of the world’s oceans and seas.
“When I think about the moon landing, it will be about where science has taken us and can take us in the future, and how it can also bring a world together.”
It gives me hope that we can potentially — through epic collaborations — fix many of the world's problems with science.
- Benjamin Chan
Benjamin Chan said he didn't fully appreciate the significance of the moon landing when he first learned about the Apollo missions in school.
The realization came later, when Chan started his own scientific career. That’s when he was "completely humbled by the incredible scientific minds that got humanity to the moon,” he told Quirks & Quarks in an email.
"Think about it: the phone I'm typing this email out on has a more powerful computer than those involved in putting a human on the moon," Chan wrote. "People had to do so many calculations (correctly) by hand!"
Chan's own work focuses on the development of alternatives to traditional antibiotic therapy. His research helped successfully target antibiotic-resistant bacteria with phages — viruses that naturally prey on bacteria.
The development of experimental treatments requires cross-disciplinary teamwork between health-care professionals and the scientific community. The spirit of collaboration made the moon landing possible in 1969, said Chan, and it continues to be the foundation of modern-day research.
"It gives me hope that we can potentially — through epic collaborations — fix many of the world's problems with science."
The Apollo 11 mission was a "symbolic call to arms" that showed what humans can achieve when we "literally reach for the stars," says cognitive neuroscientist Jarrod Lewis-Peacock.
“Look what’s possible when we humans dedicated ourselves to a common goal. We can accomplish the unimaginable,” he said.
Lewis-Peacock, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, believes the most exciting areas of scientific exploration are space and the human mind.
He refers to these as “the great external and the great internal unknown.”
For many researchers, he says, the Apollo program’s natural marvel with space and our closest celestial neighbour “undoubtedly” influenced his “curiosity of the unknown.”
Lewis-Peacock also considers the moon landing a fixture of his cultural identity as an American.
“The moon landing has become a benchmark for all other challenges that we face. If we can do that, why not this?” he said. “And that is a hopeful message.”
The story of the lunar landing ... fundamentally changed the way that we innovate.
- Shoshanah Jacobs
The legacy of the Apollo 11 team’s problem-solving achievements and technological genius have had a profound impact on the scientific community, claims Shoshanah Jacobs, an integrative biology professor at the University of Guelph.
“The story of the lunar landing [has] inspired us, and [has] fundamentally changed the way that we innovate,” Jacobs said.
The scientists responsible for designing the Apollo 11 command module and lunar lander, Jacobs explained, tackled seemingly impossible questions like how to leave Earth’s atmosphere, land safely on the moon about 385,000 kilometres away, and enable humans to safely set foot on its surface. But they did it.
In the years that followed, the Apollo program’s aggressive approach to space travel is still galvanizing new waves of scientific advancement.
“The story of the lunar landing began, not with the designing of the rocket; it began at the very moment that we started asking questions and seeking answers,” Jacobs said.
While Jacobs is not a planetary scientist or aerospace engineer, Jacobs says the Apollo 11 mission was one of the earliest examples of the need for a cross-disciplinary approach to science and research.
“The people responsible for landing humans on the moon were diverse, both in culture and in academia.”
It [Apollo program] is one of the outstanding achievements of humanity, and an example of what can be done with focused effort on big goals.
- Vivek Venkataraman
Photos of Earth that were taken during the Apollo 11 mission made a lasting impression on evolutionary anthropologist and behavioural ecologist Vivek Venkataraman.
Like many kids, Venkataraman wanted to be an astronaut. As he grew up, he turned his attention back to Earth to study ecology and evolutionary biology.
But when he saw the image of "a pale blue dot surrounded by darkness," captured during the Apollo missions, it dawned on him that "we have only one Earth to share, and that we need to do our best to protect it."
"The Apollo program has inspired me as a scientist, because it is one of the outstanding achievements of humanity, and an example of what can be done with focused effort on big goals," Venkataraman said.
His current research focuses on the evolution of the human diet and its relation to life history and behaviour.
The last 50 years have seen a boom in technology that “totally dwarfs” what the Apollo 11 team had access to, says Victoria Kaspi, director of the McGill Space Institute and a physics professor at McGill University.
“When I think about the moon landing, I’m absolutely amazed at how it was accomplished in an era when computers were so rudimentary and most of the researchers involved still used slide rulers,” she said.
“And yet they managed to build, design, implement and launch a successful lunar lander that brought and returned people safely to the moon.”
Kaspi explains it’s the brilliance of the scientific and engineering mind instead of computers that underpins so much of the so-called “technological wizardry” we enjoy today, such as smartwatches.
Listen to the full Quirks & Quarks special episode.
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