Planetary Sciences News

Forum Explores Apollo 11’s Legacy and What’s Next

Scientists focus on how the Apollo 11 mission has shaped our understanding of the Moon, Earth, and planetary neighborhood.

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People around the world are going gaga celebrating the 50th anniversary of NASA’s landmark Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

Books, television shows, museum exhibits, and special events are reminding the world of this milestone and are encouraging the next steps in space exploration. There is a Summer Moon Festival in astronaut Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio; the Washington Monument is being decked out with the projection of a 110-meter Saturn V rocket, and Mashable has compiled a list of 50 Moon songs.

Scientists are at the forefront in commemorating Apollo 11’s giant leap for mankind.

One of the most interesting events takes place tomorrow, 17 July, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., with scientists discussing the lessons and promise of Apollo 11, including how space exploration can help with better understanding problems affecting Earth. The forum, “Small Steps and Giant Leaps: How Apollo 11 Shaped Our Understanding of Earth and Beyond,” is presented by AGU (which publishes Eos) in partnership with the National Archives and as a part of AGU’s Centennial celebration.. The forum will be livestreamed for those who can’t attend the event at 7–8:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern time.

“This is really a fun opportunity, because of the anniversary, to take a look back and really tell people what did we learn [and] why was it important to go to the Moon,” NASA chief scientist and forum moderator Jim Green told Eos.

Green said that not only has Apollo 11, along with other missions, helped us to better understand the Moon, but it also has helped us to better understand the solar system and Earth, advance technological changes, and spur us on to further areas of inquiry and exploration.

“This is a wonderful time to be alive, because we are so space aware. It’s like this planet woke up and looked around,” Green said. “The [Apollo 11] command module going around the Moon, man, that’s the start of a fabulous era that we just went through. I can’t imagine what the next 50 are going to be like, but I’d love to be around to see every one of those years.”

Green, who confided that in 1966 he got hooked on the then new television show Star Trek, also said that he looks forward to NASA’s planned 2024 return human mission to the Moon and to using the Moon as a stepping stone for humans to explore Mars.

Earth rises over the horizon of the Moon.
Apollo 11 astronauts observed this view of earthrise prior to their lunar landing. Credit: NASA History Office

AGU executive director and CEO Chris McEntee, who will provide introductory remarks at the forum, said, “When viewing the Earth from space, many astronauts see firsthand the fragility of our global environment and how we are all protected and nourished by our planet’s thin atmosphere. From this vantage point, boundaries between nations disappear, and the issues that separate people are viewed as less important. What does become clear is the need to create a more unified global society that works to protect all the inhabitants of the ‘pale blue dot’ that is our shared home.”

She added, “During times of uncertainty and change to Earth’s climate and the scientific enterprise, all of us—particularly the scientific community—must join together to address these concerns. Like all those who were part of the Apollo 11 mission, we must be creative and passionate; committed and determined. We must advance research and do so with the integrity and transparency that is the foundation of scientific discovery.”

“An Incredible Treasure Trove of Knowledge”

Forum panelist Sonia Tikoo, assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford University, told Eos that the general public knows a lot about the actual Moon landing but not much more about its scientific importance.

“The Moon hosts an incredible treasure trove of knowledge that we can still continue to explore, if we just keep going with our studies of it, if we go back to the Moon and learn more,” she said. “Look at how much knowledge we have acquired and how much we have learned from just a few rocks from a few places on the Moon, and think about how much we still could learn if we expanded on this more.”

During the forum, Tikoo hopes to discuss several topics, including lunar magnetism. A magnetic field “is an invisible, but measurable, signal that is generated from the core—within a body’s interior—that suggests that it is active or alive. For planets in general, an internally generated magnetic field indicates that a core’s thermal energy is being transferred to the rest of the body via the convective motion of liquid metal. For the Moon, it is interesting to note that when the magnetic field was the strongest more or less coincides with the times that it was the most volcanically active and also experienced bombardment from large impactors that may have influenced its thermal evolution.”

Another panelist, Steven Hauck, professor of planetary geodynamics at Case Western Reserve University, said that one thing that fascinates him is that other planetary bodies provide different perspectives on how planets, including Earth, evolve.

The Apollo missions “gave us our first real quantitative and tangible way to start testing ideas about how the Moon formed and what that means for how the Earth formed as well,” he told Eos.

Reshaping How We Think About Our Planet

Panelist Heather Meyer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and a remote sensing scientist with expertise in large impact basins. She pointed out that the Moon “is a wonderful little time capsule” to learn about the history of the Moon and the solar system because the Moon’s surface isn’t affected like Earth’s is by forces such as tectonic recycling and erosion.

“The Moon is a unique and wonderful laboratory where we can learn a lot about not just the Moon but about Earth and about our entire solar system,” Meyer told Eos.

Meyer also said that “people tend to think of the lunar community as a bunch of old white guys” but that things have gotten better in terms of diversity. She said that “most scientists would agree that in order to do the best science, you need the best brains for the job. Now, that means everybody, right?”

An Enormous Leap

Sean Solomon, past president of AGU and director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doing work in terrestrial seismology at the time of the Apollo 11 mission. “From a purely engineering perspective, [the mission] is an amazing marvel that will forever be an important milestone in history,” Solomon told Eos. He added that the Apollo missions “were an enormous leap for our understanding of planets and planetary bodies in our solar system. It really created the field of planetary science and helped push this nation and other nations to continue to explore our solar system neighborhood.”

For Solomon, a key strength of that mission was the return samples of lunar material. “The samples were of enormous importance because we didn’t think we had any samples of the Moon before that mission,” he said. Solomon also noted other highlights, including Apollo seismic experiments, and he expressed regret that NASA turned off those experiments in 1977.

Solomon noted the dramatic changes in space science over the years. “In the lifetime of my colleagues and me, we have gone from viewing the planets as astronomical objects viewed rather fuzzily through the best Earth-based telescopes to complete worlds that we have visited with spacecraft, or better [by] flying or landing on the surface,” he said. “It has reshaped the way everybody in my generation thinks about our planet and its larger home.”

He added that space studies also have helped to inform people’s understanding of the fragility of Earth.

“In a sense, some of that perspective does come from what we’ve seen from space and what we now recognize space has posed to us in the way of hazards. But right now, we are a larger hazard to ourselves than anything we can foresee from space, at least at high likelihood. So we have to get our house in order before we can do some of the more ambitious things that people have in mind for extending the human presence elsewhere.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Forum explores Apollo 11’s legacy and what’s next, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO128967. Published on 16 July 2019.
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