Our journey to the moon provided important lessons – Arab News

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A photo released by NASA shows astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission,20 July 1969. (NASA/AFP) As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of mankind’s landing on the moon on July 20, it is useful to look back and highlight the most important moments and lessons from that long journey. The first thing to recall is that the journey to the moon was triggered by the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the West (mainly the US) each did not want the other to have rocket superiority, while wanting to show the world that its political, economic, social and educational system was best. And so, when the Soviets launched Sputnik (a small satellite, the size of a ball) in October 1957 and followed it with a small spacecraft carrying a dog (the famous Laika) in November 1957, alarms rang for the American leadership. The US then created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in July 1958, gave it a huge budget (at some point it reached 4 percent of the federal budget) and enlisted every big mind (including the famous Wernher von Braun, who had been brought with a group of rocket specialists from Germany after the end of the Second World War) and every helpful institution, including the military. The Americans thought they were doing well, working hard and making big progress on rocket launches, but the Soviets shocked them again by sending a human into space, to orbit the Earth: In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became a hero to his nation and a household name around the world. The Americans had to raise the stakes and bid higher. And so, on May 25, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the US Congress announcing a project to land astronauts on the moon and bring them back safely by the end of the decade. And, in September 1962, he gave his famous speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” And, indeed, thousands of American scientists today, and not just in the field of space, say that they chose to go into science and technology because they were excited by the moon project. The race was on, with progress and failures, most notably the fire that killed the three Apollo 1 astronauts in January 1967, which forced NASA to freeze the project, review all systems and designs, scrap several missions, and restart 20 months later. In October 1968, Apollo 7 flew astronauts around the Earth for 10 days, training on several procedures. Two months later, Apollo 8 carried three astronauts around the moon and back. Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 consisted of dress rehearsals, one around Earth and one around the moon. The stage was then fully set for the historic mission. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took off at 9.32am (locally), with a million people watching from the Florida coast. After two orbits around Earth, it set off for the moon, which it reached three days later, orbiting it and then sending the Lunar Module down to land. The Americans thought they were doing well, working hard and making big progress on rocket launches, but the Soviets shocked them again. Nidhal Guessoum Very tense moments occurred during the descent: Several times the computer’s alarm rang inside the vehicle (but Houston told the astronauts to ignore it, being due to the data storage getting full); Neil Armstrong deciding to go manual and change the landing spot; then Houston informing him he had just 30 seconds of fuel left — and he landed with 21 seconds left. After a few seconds, he messaged home: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” To which his correspondent in Houston replied: “Roger, Tranquility. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.” A few hours later, Armstrong took the first human step on the moon and pronounced the eloquently brief statement: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” A few minutes later, he and Buzz Aldrin unveiled a memorial plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” To reinforce that “for all mankind” message and to erase any Cold War interpretation, the two astronauts put on the moon medals for astronauts who had perished in the years preceding this historic feat: One for Apollo 1, one for Vladimir Komarov, who crashed with his spacecraft in 1967, and one for Gagarin, who had died the year before. They also put a gold olive branch on the moon, stressing the peaceful goals of the Apollo program. The Lunar Module took off a few hours later, docked back to the Command Module (which had had been orbiting the moon with Michael Collins aboard during the time of the moon landing), then set off for Earth, splashing into the Pacific Ocean on July 24 at 4.50pm GMT, eight days and three hours after the launch. In the three years that followed, five missions were sent to the moon: One failed to land there (Apollo 13) but was able to come back safely, and four (Apollos 14, 15, 16 and 17) landed, set up instruments, and collected close to 400 kilograms of rocks. With all scientific and technical goals achieved, and considering the high cost of the program ($24 billion in total or roughly $100 billion in today’s money), NASA decided to discontinue the program. The important lessons we can draw from this incredible project and achievements are manifold: First, the program was a national challenge that produced benefits (thousands of scientists, countless spinoffs, etc.) well beyond the moon goal; second, the project remained fully peaceful and had no military consequences whatsoever; and third, while the leadership went for that unfortunate American flag idea, the astronauts kept stressing the idea of “for all mankind.” Let us hope all other ambitious space programs (Emirati, Indian, Chinese, etc.) adopt the same philosophy. Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view