Mike Simpson spoke to BRC on Friday, the day before the 50th
Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Mike is the Managing Director of the International Institute of Space Science; the Executive Director Emeritus, of the Secure World Foundation; has previously served as president of: the International Space University, Utica College, and the American University in Paris. He’s been a Rotarian for 42 years and is a Paul Harris Fellow.
This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon Landing, many commentators, historians, and witnesses have talked about how and when humanity’s quest to go to the moon began. Mike believes the story began not with the United States and the U.S.S.R., but with ancient Greece.
He described Anaxagoras’ theory that the moon was a rock, much as the Earth, and not a god. Poor Anaxagoras then spent the rest of his life exiled on a rock, (or an island) far from Athens for his assertions.
Mike took it even further back, tens of thousands of years, to a time when humans might have looked out on the night sky and thought of traveling to the glowing moon in a bright night sky.
The political origins of the drive to reach the moon are much more recent in humanity’s history. Politically, it began with Sputnik-1, in 1957. The U.S.S.R. successfully launched the first satellite into Earth’s orbit, thus proving to the United States that the Russians were, as Mike described, “a significant engineering power,” that was, “perfectly capable of inventing things on its own.” The message that the U.S.S.R. was technically capable of launching objects into Earth’s orbit came with a secondary concern- if they can use this rocket to launch satellites, they could also use it to reach the U.S. with bombs. For the U.S., it was important to meet the technical challenge for both science and strategy.
In the following years,
candidate John F. Kennedy used the idea of a “missile gap” with the U.S.S.R. as part of his platform. After his election, on April 13, 1961, the U.S.S.R. put a person into space. This was a major scientific and engineering accomplishment. As with the success of the Sputnik program, this advancement was a military concern. Why? Bringing Yuri Gagarin back to the Earth meant that the U.S.S.R.’s scientists and engineers had built a heat shield system that protected him through reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The same heat shields could just as easily protect a weapon through reentry.
On April 20th
, 1961, President Kennedy sent a memo to the Vice President, who was also the head of the United States’ National Space Council, to find something that was dramatic and space related that the U.S. could “win.” President Kennedy asked, “Are we making maximum effort?”
President Kennedy’s inquiry was about public relations, but it was also about sending a message to the Soviets that the U.S. was technically capable of matching their capabilities.
Six days after President Kennedy’s memo, Vice President Johnson responded with his own memo stating that if the U.S. were willing to spend enough money, the U.S. would have a reasonable chance of beating the Soviets to land a human being on the moon and safely returning that human to the Earth.
A month later, President Kennedy delivered one of his most famous speeches to Congress proposing a project to land a person on the moon and bring that person back safely to Earth. Mike pointed out that when you listen to that speech, you can’t hear any applause. There was no applause. At that time, both parties were silent on President Kennedy’s proposition.
About fifteen months later, at Rice University, President Kennedy again proposed sending humans to the moon. The President was enthusiastic. He suggested that there were no conflicts in space, that it was an environment hostile to all humans and therefore, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind.” And to uproarious applause, President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon!” And he said, we choose to go to the moon, as we have chosen to do other difficult things such as climbing the highest mountains, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The President, much like every other person in the U.S., had no idea how hard it would be to get a human to the moon and back.
President Kennedy did not live to see the accomplishment of his ambitious challenge. However, seven years after President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University, the lunar module landed on the moon.
How difficult was it? The challenge was immense. Nearly half of the challenges presented to the scientists and engineers could not be tested before the mission was launched. There was no way to test how a lunar craft would operate in a vacuum. There was no way to know what the composition of the moon’s soil was or how it would react with vehicle, the mechanisms or the people aboard. Even the landing was impossible to predict. As Mike pointed out, the moon’s surface was not exactly what a pilot would hope for in a runway.
Apollo crew was on its way and landing on the moon, the Soviets had their own moon mission in progress. Launched three days before the Apollo 11 mission, the Luna 15 unmanned spacecraft reached the moon and began to orbit the moon. The Luna 15 mission was designed to bring lunar soil back to Earth. It failed and crashed into the moon. There was some cooperation between the two nations and missions in the sense that the Soviets were careful to keep the Luna 15 craft away from the Apollo 11 mission.
Mike described the reactions to the Apollo 11 mission. As one might expect, there was some pride, (or “chest pounding” as Mike described it) some hand wringing, worrying about a war in space, and some “irrational exuberance.”
(Within a year, the Soviets had a space laboratory in orbit.)
What happened after Apollo 11? The U.S. had six more missions to the moon- five of them landed on the moon and one took humans farther from the Earth than any one had ever gone before or since. The U.S.S.R. sent a craft to Venus and landed it. The mission sent back data from the surface of Venus which is around 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Voyager was sent out to take pictures and data readings of each of the solar system’s planets. The space shuttle took off 20 years after Gagarin’s mission and six years later the international space university was created. There have been several missions to Mars and the International Space Station was launched. We’ve sent a space craft to Jupiter’s moon Juno.
All of these subsequent missions to space show that, “space is practical.” Mike says that space missions navigate for us (GPS,) it keeps time for us, it is used for medical research, urban planning, helps predict the weather, plan humanitarian relief, allows for a host of communications and is now beginning a commercial space flight industry. One of the great accomplishments of recent space missions is cooperation and collaboration between nations. The Hubble Space Telescope is an example of cooperation between the U.S. and the European Union. The U.S. is no longer alone in space exploration.
Mike said that the Hubble Space Telescope is an example of a space technology that has expanded human’s perspective- beyond science, beyond engineering. The Hubble Telescope allows humans to see farther than they ever have before. Mike showed a Hubble photo of the Cat’s Eye Nebula, which is beautiful but is also evidence of a powerful explosion. It also proves that humans live in a very quiet neighborhood. The Milky Way is more of a Boulder than the universe’s New York City.
These outings into space continue to shape human’s perspective on themselves and the planet we all live on. As Mike says, this picture of the Earth’s atmosphere is a graphic illustration of “all that stands between us and the vacuum of space.”
Mike pointed out that space exploration inspires artists, but scientists have also used art (in the form of music) to help explain the heretofore inexplicable movement of a galaxy. You must see the video for that explanation. (check it out at 23:17)
The Apollo 11 moon landing was one part of a greater narrative in human development and understanding. Mike wished us all a happy 50th
Anniversary of that accomplishment and hoped he gave us something to think about.
If you want to see how astrophysics meets music theory to explain the inexplicable, you can watch Mike’s program by clicking HERE.
You can see the rest of President John's first meeting by clicking HERE
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