“Houston, Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Neil Armstrong’s first words from the surface of the Moon crackled through the speakers of millions watching worldwide fifty years ago. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo lunar module, nicknamed Eagle, landed on the surface of the Moon, transmitting a fuzzy and pale video link back home.
As the world held its breath, the two astronauts inside, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, tentatively left the relative safety of Eagle and took mankind’s first steps on the lunar surface.
Placing his foot onto the grey moon rock, Armstrong reported back to Earth using words which would be immortalised in popular culture: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The Apollo 11 lunar landing was the culmination of the so-called Space Race, the Cold War competition between the United States of America and the Soviet Union which commenced with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
The Soviets initially led the race sending Yuri Gagarin, the first man, into space in 1961, closely followed by the first woman in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova. As the race heated up and the Cold War stakes grew, the sights of both nations became firmly fixed upon our closest celestial neighbour – the Moon.
In his now famous speech, given in Houston, Texas in 1962, American President John F. Kennedy sought to allay fiscal fears over the recently announced Apollo missions, proclaiming the race for the Moon as a showcase of American spirit, invoking the grit that enabled the first pioneers to carve their nation out of the wild frontier.
Seeking to salvage an image of the United States damaged by recent failures in the race with the USSR, Kennedy ended his speech by saying: “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
He succeeded, instilling a romantic notion amongst the American people and creating a vast new frontier in space, in which all of mankind would face a common enemy in its environmental challenges.
His goal of a lunar landing was achieved within a decade, albeit after his assassination in 1963. A total of 12 astronauts would step foot on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. We have never been back, but within the next two decades, that is set to change.
“It just becomes more and more mind boggling and impressive to think about what those teams accomplished at that moment in history with the technology they had. I think that it’s just a testament to what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to something,” says NASA astronaut Richard ‘Ricky’ Arnold II.
Arnold, most recently spent 197 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS), returning to Earth in October 2018. Even with his own experiences in space, he holds the astronauts of Apollo in highest esteem.
“I just can’t imagine what it must have felt like, even with my experiences on the space station. To come around the lunar surface and see the Earth smaller than the Moon, rising over the Moon’s horizon, it’s still hard for me to image what that would be like, and what it took to accomplish that back in the 60s and early 70s!”
Whilst the ‘Space Race’ of the Cold War era has long ended, mankind’s exploration of space has continued to evolve with the advancements of modern technology.
Great orbital telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 1990 and 2003, now point outwards from Earth’s orbit, furthering the limit on what we can see in the murky fathoms of space. In 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is set to be launched – the direct successor to the older generation of space telescopes.
Space stations have been blasted into orbit around our planet. The Soviet space station Mir operated from 1986-2001, whilst the Chinese Tiangong programme orbited between 2011 and 2019.
Today, only the ISS remains – perhaps the most well known and celebrated example of international cooperation in the exploration of space. Creating sustainable and liveable environments beyond the safety of Earth is a vital step on the path to colonisation in space, be that another planet, or within space itself.
Missions to the ISS continue to be frequent, with teams of astronauts spending varied lengths of time aboard, undertaking scientific experiments, technical alterations to the station or performing essential maintenance.
“It’s very nice living on the ISS,” Arnold recalled of his times spent aboard. “Being part of an international crew, doing cutting edge science in a really unique location is a wonderful experience. Our days were about 12 hours long, starting the day with a morning conference at around 7:00am GMT. We then have a daily schedule that goes to about 7:00pm.”
To many, life aboard the ISS may seem idyllic and surreal, with the Earth passing by beyond the station’s portholes, giving hours to gaze and wonder at the stars glittering in their millions. In reality, it is very much a working station, with the demands of the mission ever present in an astronauts life.
“You have an entire ground team who manages your schedule, and they uplink it to you. There is sometimes flexibility, the ground are very sensitive on that and try and give you as much as possible, but they’ve got a mission they want to get done, and you’re up there to execute it for them.”
After being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2004, Arnold served on two space missions. The first, STS-119, was a 12-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the shuttle which carried the Hubble telescope into orbit.
Arnold and the crew of STS-119 performed a vital install of the S6 truss, a portion of the ISS which carried the last set of solar arrays, thus allowing an increase from a crew of three to six. It was also during STS-119 that Arnold performed his first space walk, otherwise known as an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity).
“I remember my very first space walk, it was time-lined to the minute. Installing the S6 truss was our primary mission objective, and so after we got all of that done, around six hours into the space walk, I’m just sitting there tethered to the space station, and I kind of just let go with my hands and watched the Earth pass beneath my feet, and I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe someone is paying me to do this!’”
Preparing to leave Earth aboard Discovery was an experience which Arnold recalls with excitement, whilst remembering the psychological pressures which he and the rest of the crew felt in 2009.
“To launch is a very surreal experience because you know, you’re preparing to leave Earth. When you’re getting ready to launch, ‘surrendered to the madness’ probably isn’t the right term, but it’s close, you know, you’ve committed to what you’re going to do.”
“Then, it’s quite a ride; it’s just a pure ride of exhilaration, to travel at speeds when you think you can’t go any faster, but for eight and a half minutes you’re just accelerating!”
The Space Shuttle blasted its way into space with the aid of huge rocket boosters which separated and fell away as the shuttle reached micro-gravity, a feeling which Arnold describes in sci-fi-esque detail.
“With the Space Shuttle you definitely feel it. You’re secured in your seats, but things would start to float. there are explosive bolts holding the exterior fuel tank and you would feel that as it separated form the space shuttle and the main engines cut off.”
“The staging in the Soyuz was rather dramatic too, when you reached micro-gravity, you knew it. You were kind of thrown forward in your seat a little, and stuff started to float, there was no question about it!”
Soyuz is a Russian spacecraft on which Arnold flew during his second mission to space in 2018, this time to the ISS. “Once those main engines have been shut off, a fair amount of risk has been removed. You’re no longer sitting on top of a controlled explosion, so the atmosphere inside the cabin is one of excitement and happiness!”
During his 197-day stay aboard the ISS during Expedition 55, Arnold and his crew-mates undertook experiments relating to DNA sequencing, something which is vital in furthering our understanding of the effects micro-gravity has upon living organisms.
“We have micro-organisms living on the space station since it was first launched, so generations of bacteria have been living in low-Earth orbit. So, we wanted to perfect how we identify these bacteria genetically to get a sense of how their genome has changed due to radiation in that micro-gravity environment.” The crew of Expedition 55 were also the first crew to sequence RNA on the space station.
The on-going work to maintain and develop the ISS represents an important aspect of the future of space exploration, which will likely see manned and unmanned missions expand to the further reaches of our solar system.
Ahead of a mission to Mars, or the futuristic ‘Von Braun Wheels of the Future’ station, NASA announced its intention to return to the Moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis Program and announced that this time, they “want the world to come along.”
But why does the Moon hold such significance in both the context of interstellar exploration, and the human psyche?
Mankind’s obsession with the Moon and the stars has existed since the dawn of conscious thought in our species. For thousands of years stories have been passed down across generations, depicting the countless stars that litter our skies as the embodiment of important deities, or long-dead relatives and ancestors.
Our celestial neighbours became harbingers of drought, rainfall, harvest and the seasons. Looking to the stars become a focal point of early religion, with pre-historic sites such as Stonehenge believed to have been used for a variety of social and religious functions in alignment with astrology.
As civilisations progressed and technology evolved, as did our understanding of what lay beyond our small world. In ancient Babylonia, the progress of celestial objects were observed and recorded, the most famous being Halley’s comet, first recorded in 164BCE and returning every 76 years.
The planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were also identified, and rudimentary studied long before the era of the astronomers Huygens, Galileo, Herschel and Cassini.
The ancient Greeks invented and devised a variety of objects and mechanisms designed to track and chart the movements of objects beyond Earth. The best known of these is the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancestor of the modern computer which was used to calculate the positions of astronomical objects.
With the coming of the modern age, the list of known planets began to grow larger. Herschel also discovered Uranus in 1781, before a slew of moons were discovered orbiting the outer planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. Neptune was sighted in 1846, before the discovery of Pluto in 1930 made our list of local neighbours complete.
The great discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries widened our scientific grasp of the function and formation of local space, as well as our place within it.
The Moon allowed many of the great astronomers to cut their teeth in a burgeoning field of discovery. They used knowledge gained in the relatively easy viewing of the lunar surface to expand their gaze into the depths of space.
A recent exhibition at the Royal Greenwich Museum detailed the complex relationship between humankind and the Moon, charting its importance from the ancient past, to its conquering by Apollo, through to the modern day and a new era of lunar exploration.
Showcased at the exhibition was a concept of 3D printed Moonbases, created by the European Space Agency (ESA). This technology may allow the construction of resilient structures using materials gathered and sourced locally on the moon, dramatically reducing the amount of fuel needed to transport materials too and from Earth.
3D printing is already in use on board the ISS, where it is used to build tools needed during missions. “It’s a remarkable technology that I think we need to take advantage of,” says Arnold. “If you have the raw materials and send the file, the printer will just build you what you need, rather than building it on the ground and then having to send it on a rocket; it could have huge implications.”
With a current global push for environmentalism, NASA and other space agencies recognise that the missions of the future cannot follow the same models of the past. The future of space exploration must lie within sustainability and a model which recognises and addresses challenges as effectively as possible.
NASA and the coalition of private space agencies and companies may have grand plans, but are they achievable? The cost of manned missions to the ISS, let alone the construction of lunar bases and missions to Mars, are huge. An estimate of the cost of the space station over 10 years is around $100 billion, which includes its future development, assembly and running costs.
“It’s just a fiscal challenge, we were able to do this 50 years ago with technology developed in the 1960s, so technologically we can certainly go to the Moon and build a base,” says Arnold.
“I think we can go on to Mars from there, it’s just a question of how do we do it in a sustainable way. We can’t follow the model of Apollo where you go, land, and leave everything behind and then have to build everything from scratch. I think we are going to have to take advantage of the power of innovation that our private partners have. So when we go back to the Moon, we’re giving private corporations the opportunity to come partner with us, and think about ways we can do things differently,” Arnold says.
Private companies such as SpaceX and Lockheed Martin are one of a number of corporations under the umbrella of the Artemis Program, all with their goals set upon the Moon and Mars. China, Japan, Russia and the United States have all announced manned missions to the Moon within the next two decades, and other international agencies continue to develop unmanned missions to the Moon and beyond.
We are living in an exciting time for space travel and only by international co-operation can humanity journey deeper into the stars and establish colonies on other worlds. It is important we look backwards, as well as forward, and recognise the immensity of the successes of Apollo, the strides which humankind took in such a short space of time.
“They were a remarkable group of individuals, the astronauts and the people on the ground,” Arnold says of Apollo. “Those who put everything together and accomplished it in such a short period of time, it’s just mind-boggling.”
For Arnold, whether he will walk upon the surface of the Moon in a future mission remains unknown. For now, he maintains a belief that whoever next steps onto the lunar surface, be it he or another, will represent an exciting new generation of space exploration.
“I want to see us go to the moon, and from there, head onto Mars, and have the person who first steps on Mars, step as a representative of all humanity.”
So this evening or the next, take a moment when the sky is clear and the Moon rises. Look to the stars and to the planets twinkling in the twilight. You may spot the International Space Station travelling silently across the night sky, gleaming in the glow of the sun.
Look ever outwards, because it appears that a new space race may be upon us.
All images courtesy of NASA.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein.