It was once thought of as an impossible quest, an improbable moonshot of the longest odds: Putting humans on the lunar surface then returning them to Earth.
The directive from President John F. Kennedy in 1961 asked the young space agency NASA to do just that, and in eight short years the agency and hundreds of support personnel and ordinary Americans accomplished what many argue is the greatest human achievement of all time.
July 20 marks the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that saw three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins travel to where no man had gone before. Armstrong and Aldrin walked into history when they touched down on the lunar surface while Collins orbited above.
The Apollo 11 moon landing was the first manned mission to the moon, and it was the first time in history humans left Earth and landed on another planetary body. The astronauts also brought back the first samples from a planetary object.
Aside from the obvious reason the historic Apollo 11 mission was so important, there are other reasons the mission made a lasting impact on the country and the world.
Some historical analyses credit the Apollo 11 mission with the start of the digital revolution and other major technological gains.
“The technology that America reaped from the federal investment in space hardware (satellite reconnaissance, biomedical equipment, lightweight materials, water-purification systems, improved computing systems and a global search-and-rescue system) has earned its worth multiple times over,” historian Douglas Brinkley concluded in his book “AMERICAN MOONSHOT: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.”
“We didn’t get the Jetsons, as some people dreamed, but the eight years between President Kennedy’s challenge and the actual moon landing produced an unprecedented blossoming of innovation, creativity, public attention (and then public inattention), innovative management, intensity, suspense, discovery, and politics. We think we went to the Moon and all we got was Tang and Velcro, because we’ve lost the perspective of how the Apollo project laid the foundation for the digital age in which we now live and work,” David Lidsky wrote for Fast Company.
Kent Wang wrote for the Asia Times that the Apollo 11 mission opened the gateway for the exploration of the universe and created a potential staging area for a journey to Mars.
“NASA needs to develop a strategy for effectively leveraging both commercial and international partners to send humans on missions to the moon. Fortunately, we now seem to be closer to a consensus that it is time for humans to move beyond low-Earth orbit and that an important part of that evolution will involve people landing on the moon and establishing a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars.”
It’s the Apollo 11 mission so many years ago that proved humans could leave the Earth and journey beyond its gravity to our nearest neighbor. It’s Apollo 11 that opened the door to the possibility of human exploration of the universe and the upcoming next step: a mission to Mars.