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Forty years later
Posted: JULY 20, 2009

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Forty years ago humans left the cradle of the Earth and stepped foot onto another planetary world for the very first time. Between 1969 and 1972 twelve men explored Earth's Moon, their footprints revealed in spectacular new images taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The crew of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Image: NASA.

The quest to first put man on the Moon began in 1961, when US President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending men to the Earth's nearest planetary neighbour before the decade was out. There was strong competition from the Soviets but after eight years of hard work the dream was realised, although not without tragedy along the way, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first historic steps into the magnificent desolation of the lunar landscape.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space." – J. F. Kennedy, 1961.

Six missions successfully landed on the Moon, which were not only a seriously impressive technical achievement, but the science that was carried out on the lunar surface brought life to the grey world that astronomers had been studying from the ground ever since humans first looked to the skies. The experiments included studies of the soil the astronauts walked in and the rocks strewn across the surface, seismic activity, heat flow, solar wind and impact events. In total, 381 kilograms of lunar rock were returned to Earth, ranging in age from 3.2 billion years old for young mare basalts to 4.6 billion year old highland crust. The samples represent a very early period of Solar System formation, one that is missing from the Earth thanks to the destructive nature of plate tectonics.

Buzz Aldrin stands by the US flag that him and Neil Armstrong planted on the Moon forty years ago today. Image: NASA.

Apollo in brief

Apollo 1 - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee perish in a fire during training on the launch pad.

Apollo 2-6 were all unmanned missions, designed to investigate various effects of spaceflight. They focused on studies of the effects of weightlessness on fuel in the rocket's fuel tanks, heating on the module's heat shields, behaviour of spacecraft materials in a space environment, re-entry procedures and so on.

Apollo 7 was the first manned mission, an eleven day Earth-orbiting mission intended to test out a redesigned command module, as well as life support systems and propulsion systems.

Apollo 8 was the first manned Moon-orbiting mission. The three man crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes, as well as see the Earth from orbit around another celestial body.

Apollo 9. An Earth-orbiting mission, astronauts Jim McDivitt, David Scott and Rusty Schweickart tested docking maneuvers, backpack life support systems and navigation systems using the Lunar Module, demonstrating its worthiness in manned spaceflight missions.

Apollo 10 contained the second crew to orbit the Moon without landing. The mission involved testing the Lunar Module in lunar orbit.

Apollo 11 - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by becoming the first men to walk on the Moon, while Michael Collins orbited above. Millions of people across the world watched Armstrong make those first important steps onto the lunar surface and speak his famous line: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind". Aldrin described the Moon as "magnificent desolation". You can read the full story of Apollo 11 in the July issue of Astronomy Now, available to purchase from our online store.

Apollo 12, with Charles Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, became famous for the launch vehicle being struck by lightning during liftoff, not once, but twice, at 36 and 52 seconds after launch. The events lit up nearly every warning light on the control panel, but some quick thinking by the astronauts to switch to a back up power supply prevented the mission from being aborted. Once safely at the Moon, the mission demonstrated precision landing, arriving just 200 metres from the intended target next to the Surveyor 3 probe, which was sent to the Moon in 1967. On their return journey the astronauts witnessed the Earth eclipsing the Sun.

Apollo 13 suffered an in-space explosion which disabled the spacecraft on its journey to the Moon. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the astronauts, along with intensive problem solving solutions relayed from ground crew, the astronauts were returned safely to Earth. The crew members of Apollo 13 were James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise.

Apollo 14 landed in the Frau Mauro region of the Moon originally destined for Apollo 13 crew. Alan Shephard – who famously hit two golf balls on the Moon – and fellow moonwalker Edgar Mitchell deployed and activated various scientific instruments while Stuart Roosa orbited above.

Apollo 15. Astronauts David Scott and James Irwin spent a lengthy three days on the lunar surface near Hadley Rille, exploring the area using the first Lunar Rover, while Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden studied the lunar environment from orbit using cameras, spectrometers and a laser altimeter.

Apollo 16. Astronauts John Young and Charles Duke made the first expedition into the lunar highlands while Kenneth Mattingly orbited the Moon. Their bounty included an 11 kilogram chunk of rock, the largest single returned rock from all the Apollo missions. The scientific results of the mission concluded that impacts were the dominant agent in sculpting the lunar surface.

Apollo 17, with Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans, was the last Apollo mission. Schmitt, a trained geologist, and Cernan, discovered the famous volcanic orange soil in the Taurus-Littrow valley during their 34 kilometre roam in the Lunar Rover.

Graphic indicating the approximate locations of the Apollo landing sites. Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Due to a waning budget and public interest, Apollo 18-20 were cancelled and humans have not returned since, although the Apollo astronauts' footprints will remain engraved in the lunar surface forever.

"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record — that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." – Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander and last man to walk on the Moon.

Several decades passed, and reminiscent of Kennedy's speech in 1961, on 14 January 2004, US President George Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to lead new manned missions back to the Moon by 2020 that will eventually pave the way for human exploration of Mars. As a precursory mission, NASA recently launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will play a key role in scoping out potential future landing sites.

This weekend, a number of images were released by the LRO team of five of the six Apollo landing sites. The pictures reveal the lunar module descent stages sitting on the Moon's surface. Long shadows from a low sun angle make the modules' locations evident. Images of the Apollo 14 landing site even show the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, and faint trails left by the astronauts' footprints as they traversed between the lunar module and the instruments.

LRO images of Apollo landing sites. The white arrows point to the lunar module descent stages, revealed by long shadows cast across the surface. An enhanced image of the Apollo 14 site reveals further details of the mission. Images: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University

"Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues," says LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "They demonstrate how LRO will be used to identify the best destinations for the next journeys to the Moon." These first images came before the spacecraft reached its final mapping orbit; future images from these sites, and the remaining Apollo 12 site, will have two to three times greater resolution.

Also timed for the 40th anniversary celebrations, NASA released a number of new digitally enhanced videos of various aspects of the Apollo 11 mission. The first set of restored videos plays out four scenes from the historic mission: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descending from the Lunar Module Eagle and onto the lunar surface, the astronauts positioning the flag pole in the Moon's surface and them reading the plaque fixed to the Eagle that read "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind."

The new video offers what is said to be the best available broadcast format copies of the mission, and offers a taster of the quality to be expected from the forthcoming videos of the full July 1969 lunar excursion, which will be released in September.

Last week, NASA also released a unique audio 'time capsule' from the entire Apollo 11 mission, which will be replayed and streamed on the Internet at exactly the same time and date it was broadcast in 1969. The audio began at 6:32 a.m. CDT on Thursday, exactly two hours before Apollo 11 launched, and will continue through the entire mission until 11:51 a.m. CDT Friday, 24 July. The Web stream will feature the communications between the astronauts and ground teams, and commentary from Mission Control at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA and ESA's long-term aim is to build a permanent lunar base to support astronauts as they spend extended periods exploring the lunar surface, with the ultimate goal of learning skills that could be applied to a manned mission to Mars. And with Lord Drayson reversing the British Government's policy to ban spending on human spaceflight following ESA's selection of Brit Major Tim Peake to join its astronaut training corps, Britain now has a fighting chance of being at the forefront of human exploration of our Solar System.

The Planets
From tiny Mercury to distant Neptune and Pluto, The Planets profiles each of the Solar System's members in depth, featuring the latest imagery from space missions. The tallest mountains, the deepest canyons, the strongest winds, raging atmospheric storms, terrain studded with craters and vast worlds of ice are just some of the sights you'll see on this 100-page tour of the planets.

Hubble Reborn
Hubble Reborn takes the reader on a journey through the Universe with spectacular full-colour pictures of galaxies, nebulae, planets and stars as seen through Hubble's eyes, along the way telling the dramatic story of the space telescope, including interviews with key scientists and astronauts.

3D Universe
Witness the most awesome sights of the Universe as they were meant to be seen in this 100-page extravaganza of planets, galaxies and star-scapes, all in 3D!


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