Campus News

Moon landing 50th anniversary: Looking back, looking forward


Published July 19, 2019

Portrait of UB planetary geologist Tracy Gregg.
“Scientifically, the rocks brought back from Apollo 11 changed the way we viewed how the planets formed, and how they changed through time.”
Tracy Gregg, associate professor
Department of Geology

On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the moon. Fellow astronaut Michael Collins piloted their spacecraft, Columbia, in lunar orbit while his colleagues explored the alien surface.

Fifty years later, what do we know today about the moon that we didn’t know back then? What’s the future of human space travel? What did we learn from the Apollo space program, which carried out the 1969 and other moon missions?

Tracy Gregg, a planetary geologist at UB, shared her thoughts with UBNow.

An associate professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, Gregg has studied the geology of numerous extraterrestrial bodies in our Solar System, including Earth’s moon. She is also involved in space exploration, serving as U.S. co-chair of a U.S.-Russian team tasked with mapping out potential scientific goals for Venera-D, an unmanned Russian-led mission to Venus.

If you want to catch her in person, Gregg will be giving local talks on July 20 to mark the moon landing anniversary, one at the Niagara Aerospace Museum and two at the Williamsville Central School District Space Lab Planetarium.

UBNow: Why was the moon landing in 1969 a significant event?

Gregg: You’re kidding, right? <deep breath> In the context of the time, the greatest significance of the Apollo 11 landing was that we beat the Soviets. The Cold War was real, palpable and infected every part of almost every American’s life.

My dad, living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, remembers the nuclear warhead drills at school (“Remember, kids, don’t look at the flash!”) and nightmares of Soviet tanks rolling down Main Street. Up until the moment Neil Armstrong took his famous “one small step,” the Soviets had been winning the Space Race.

The Soviets had: 1) the first satellite in Earth’s orbit; 2) the first person in space; 3) the first robotic lander on the moon; and 4) the first spacecraft in lunar orbit. (Incidentally, they also sent the first woman into space over 20 years before the U.S. space program did.)

Up until Apollo 11, the U.S. was publicly and embarrassingly losing the Space Race, making the final win — getting a person on the moon — even more thrilling.

UBNow: What did we learn — science-wise — from the Apollo missions?

Gregg: We learned, first and foremost, that humans can indeed explore the harsh environment of outer space and return unharmed. We could also see the fragility of planet Earth in breathtaking color and beauty in the images that the Apollo astronauts captured. The first color image of the whole Earth from space was taken by Apollo astronauts.

We learned that the moon is ancient — 4.6 billion years old — requiring that Earth be that old, too. And we discovered that the moon is essentially inhospitable to life, and pretty much devoid of water. In many ways, it’s the Earth’s opposite.

Scientifically, the rocks brought back from Apollo 11 changed the way we viewed how the planets formed, and how they changed through time.

Until the Apollo program, no one fully realized the vital role that asteroid impact plays in planetary formation and evolution. Today, most school children will gleefully tell you that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. That idea would have been preposterous without the Apollo program.

UBNow: All of the astronauts in the Apollo program were men. How have things changed today?

Gregg: It was a sexist time. Women simply weren’t allowed to be astronauts. They did, however, work as scientists and engineers (witness the book “Hidden Figures” and see this story for examples).

And it’s still sexist: Remember the all-female canceled spacewalk. NASA still struggles with how to handle menstruation in space. It’s getting better, but there’s still a long road ahead, in spite of the mounting evidence that it’s probably better both psychologically and physically to send women (instead of men) on long-term space missions.

UBNow: Why is human exploration of the moon needed (as opposed to just exploring with remotely controlled landers)?

Gregg: Part of my research involves studying volcanoes on Earth’s ocean floors, and I’ve been able to do that with a remote-controlled vehicle as well as from within a submarine. My experience is that there is absolutely no substitute for the human presence. A remote-controlled vehicle is useful to perform the expected tasks, but is commonly helpless in the face of the unexpected.

Astronaut Jack Schmidt, the only astronaut holding a PhD in geology, was walking on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, and a patch of orange soil caught his eye (everything so far had been shades of gray). It was just a brief flash of color that he saw in his peripheral vision. He radioed for permission to stay on the surface a bit longer than planned to collect some of this orange soil for return to Earth.

This sample eventually revealed microscopic droplets of frozen lava—quenched to a glass in the cold lunar environment—and required that at least some volcanoes on the moon erupt explosively, with fire-fountains like those we saw feeding the lava flows on Hawaii recently.

No one expected that; no one predicted that; it changed the way we think about how the moon evolved and what it’s made of. Had it been a robot instead of a person, that knowledge would have been lost forever.

UBNow: What do we now know about the moon that we didn’t 50 years ago?

Gregg: A lot. Below are what I consider to be the “Big Ones.”

  1. The most likely explanation for the formation of the moon is that a few million years after Earth formed, a Mars-sized object smacked into the Earth. The resulting ejecta coalesced to make the moon.
  2. Impact cratering (by asteroids and comets) is a fundamental planetary process that has strongly influenced the way a planet evolves through time.
  3. At the end of the Apollo program, we thought that the only geologic process still active on the moon after about 3.2 billion years ago was impact cratering. We now know that the moon is tectonically active (it experiences “moon quakes”) and has had volcanic eruptions, perhaps as recently as a few hundred million years ago.
  4. There is water ice huddled in permanently shadowed regions at the moon’s north and south poles.

UBNow: Why continue studying the moon?

Gregg: The moon remains our geologic touchstone for the rest of the Solar System: It’s the only planet other than Earth where rocks from a known location have been collected and analyzed. Any ideas we have about how geologic processes work on other planets (aside from Earth) can really only be tested — thoroughly tested — on the Moon.

Similarly, any technologies for putting people on other planets (Mars, for example) for weeks or months must first be tested on the moon.

And there’s still so many unanswered questions about the moon!