As most will know, it is fifty years ago since the first Moon landing. I was doing a post-doc in Australia at the time, and instead of doing any work that morning, when the word got around on that fateful day we all downed tools and headed to anyone with a TV set. The Parkes radio telescope had allowed what they received to be live-streamed to Australian TV stations. This was genuine reality TV. Leaving aside the set picture resolution, we were seeing what Houston was seeing, at exactly the same time. There was the Moon, in brilliant grey, and we could watch the terrain get better defined as the lander approached, then at some point it seemed as if the on-board computer crashed. (As computers go, it was primitive. A few years later I purchased a handheld calculator that would leave that computer for dead in processing power.) Anyway, Armstrong took control, and there was real tension amongst the viewers in that room because we all knew if anything else went wrong, those guys would be dead. There was no possible rescue. The ground got closer, Armstrong could not fix on a landing site, the fuel supply was getting lower, then, with little choice because of the fuel, the ground got closer faster, the velocity dropped, and to everyone’s relief the Eagle landed and stayed upright. Armstrong was clearly an excellent pilot with excellent nerves. Fortunately, the lander’s legs did not drop into a hole, and as far as we could tell, Armstrong chose a good site. Light relief somewhat later in the day to watch them bounce around on the lunar surface. (I think they were ordered to take a 4-hour rest. Why they hadn’t rested before trying to land I don’t know. I don’t know about you, but if I had just successfully landed on the Moon, and would be there for not very long, a four-hour rest would not seem desirable.)
In some ways that was one of America’s finest moments. The average person probably has no idea how much difficult engineering went into that, and how everything had to go right. This was followed up by six further successful landings, and the ill-fated Apollo 13, which nevertheless was a triumph in a different way in that despite a near-catastrophic situation, the astronauts returned to Earth.
According to the NASA website, the objectives of the Apollo program were:
- Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
- Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
- Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
- Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.
The first two appear to have been met, but obviously there is an element of opinion there. It is debatable that the last one achieved much because there has been no effort to return to the Moon or to use it in any way, although that may well change now. Charles Duke turns 84 this year and he still claims the title of “youngest person to walk on the Moon”.
So how successful was the scientific program? In some ways, remarkably, yet in others there is a surprising reluctance to notice the significance of what was found. The astronauts brought back a large amount of lunar rocks, but there were some difficulties here in that until Apollo 17, the samples were collected by astronauts with no particular geological training. Apollo 17 changed that, but it was still one site, albeit with a remarkably varied geological variety. Of course, they did their best and selected for variety, but we do not know what was overlooked.
Perhaps the most fundamental discovery was that the isotopes from lunar rocks are essentially equivalent to earth rocks, and that means they came from the same place. To put this in context, the ratio of isotopes of oxygen, 16O/17O/18O varies in bodies seemingly according to distance from the star, although this cannot easily be represented as a function. The usual interpretation is that the Moon was formed when a small planet, maybe up to the size of Mars, called Theia crashed into Earth and sent a deluge of matter into space at a temperature well over ten thousand degrees Centigrade, and some of this eventually aggregated into the Moon. Mathematical modelling has some success at showing how this happened, but I for one am far from convinced. One of the big advantages of this scenario is that it shows why the Moon has no significant water, no atmosphere, and never had any, apart from some water and other volatiles frozen in deep craters at the South Pole that almost certainly arrived from comets and condensed there thanks to the cold. As an aside, you will often read that the lunar gravity is too weak to hold air. That is not exactly true; it cannot hold it indefinitely, but if it started with carbon dioxide proportional in mass, or even better in cross-sectional area, to what Earth has, it would still have an atmosphere.
One of the biggest disadvantages of this scenario is where did Theia come from? The models show that if the collision, which happened about 60 million years after the Earth formed, occurred from Theia having a velocity much above the escape velocity from Earth, the Moon cannot form. It gets the escape velocity from falling down the Earth’s gravitational field, but if it started far enough further out that would have permitted Theia to have lasted 60 million years, then its velocity would be increased by falling down the solar gravitational field, and that would be enhanced by the eccentricity of its trajectory (needed to collide). Then there is the question of why are the isotopes the same as on Earth when the models show that most of the Moon came from Theia. There has been one neat alternative: Theia accreted at the Earth-Sun fourth or fifth Lagrange point, which gives it indefinite stability as long as it is small. That Theia might have grown just too big to stay there explains why it took so long and starting at the same radial distance as Earth explains why the isotope ratios are the same.
So why did the missions stop? In part, the cost, but that is not a primary reason because most of the costs were already paid: the rockets had already been manufactured, the infrastructure was there and the astronauts had been trained. In my opinion, it was two-fold. First, the public no longer cared, and second, as far as science was concerned, all the easy stuff had been done. They had brought back rocks, and they had done some other experiments. There was nothing further to do that was original. This program had been a politically inspired race, the race was run, let’s find something more exciting. That eventually led to the shuttle program, which was supposed to be cheap but ended up being hideously expensive. There were also the deep space probes, and they were remarkably successful.
So overall? In my opinion, the Apollo program was an incredible technological program, bearing in mind from where it started. It established the US as firmly the leading scientific and engineering centre on Earth, at least at the time. Also, it got where it did because of a huge budget dedicated to one task. As for the science, more on that later.