Astronaut and Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin is pictured during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the moon. He had just deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package. In the foreground is the Passive Seismic Experiment Package; beyond it is the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector (LR-3). Photo: NASA
The Apollo 11 Saturn V lifts off with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. at 9:32 a.m. EDT July 16, 1969, from Kennedy's Launch Complex 39A. Photo: NASA
Command Module pilot Michael Collins practices in the CM simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA
The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, in a landing configuration, photographed in lunar orbit from the Command and Service Module Columbia. Inside the module were Armstrong and Aldrin. Photo: NASA
This July 20, 1969 photograph of the interior view of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module shows astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. during the lunar landing mission. Photo: NASA
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, exits the Lunar Module "Eagle" as he prepares to walk on the moon. Photo: NASA
This photograph of Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, was taken inside the Lunar Module (LM) while the LM rested on the lunar surface. Photo: NASA
Buzz Aldrin moves toward a position to deploy two components of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the surface of the moon. Photo: NASA
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 mission. Photo: NASA
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the United States flag on the lunar surface. The astronauts’ footprints are clearly visible. Photo: NASA
A close-up view of astronaut Buzz Aldrin's bootprint in the lunar soil, photographed with the 70mm lunar surface camera during Apollo 11's sojourn on the moon. Photo: NASA
As commander of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong took most of the photographs from the historic moonwalk, but this rare shot from fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin shows Armstrong at work near the lunar module Eagle. Photo: NASA
The Apollo 11 crew await pickup by a helicopter from the USS Hornet, the prime recovery ship for the historic lunar landing mission. Photo: NASA
Official crew photo of the Apollo 11 Prime Crew, from left: astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. Photo: NASA
Published July 19, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gregg: A lot. Below are what I consider to be the “Big Ones.”
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!