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Space Odyssey: Apollo 11 and the contemporary space exploration

In 1969, the world population was about 3 billion. Of the 1 billion that had television, almost all of them were watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on a hot summer night in July. It is still one of the largest TV audiences ever assembled for a single event.

During the Cold War, Americans were shocked and frightened by the progress the Soviet Union achieved on space exploration. NASA convened scientists, engineers and physicians after President Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech. The challenge of moon landing officially started.

Back then, there were countless challenges ahead – developing a rocket powerful enough to send a man to the moon was one of them. Jared Woodfill, one of the 19 current members in NASA who worked there since the Apollo missions, recalled when his colleague came up with the lunar orbit rendezvous design: “if you could do it in two steps – sending a ship out to the moon to orbit the moon, and then from that ship, deploy or land a smaller lander on the moon, you could use a much smaller and less powerful rocket,” he said.

Jared Woodfill is one of the 19 people who work at NASA during Apollo missions. He was an engineer for Apollo 13.

Apollo 11 finally completed its mission in July 1969, right before “the end of the decade” proposed by President Kennedy. Finishing several additional lunar shots after that, Americans abandoned Apollo and transferred to another entirely different trajectory – space shuttle programs.

“So mentally we changed our thinking as a nation and we decided we would spend a lot of time in low earth orbit,” said Kenneth Phillips, Curator of the California Science Center, “It wasn’t a lunar destination or Mars destination. It was designed to make us really proficient so that we could work a lot of dexterity, really knew what we were doing there.”

The purpose of the space shuttle program was not to prove the hardware, accomplish missions or demonstrate that we are superior to another organization, Phillips said. “The purpose was to build something that will let us stay in space permanently.”

However, the Apollo programs back in the day were the opposite. “99% of the effort was the proof of product, proof of concepts, proof of technology to get us to the moon and back. 1% was, ‘oh, let’s get the samples while we’re there,’” Phillips said. “And it was like 90% engineering and then 10% science. So it was primarily an engineering project. It was a capability demonstration.”

The patriotic and political parts of it motivated Apollo program, Phillips said, but science and technology was the main part of the execution, especially for the space shuttle era. “The space shuttle was a little bit less so because the shuttle issue ushered in the stage of international cooperation,” he said. “So instead of countries being very fiercely competitive with space, they decided we would jointly build an international space station and we learned from each other.”

space shuttle endeavor at California Science Center

Phillips also pointed out that parallel to the man-in-space program is the rigorous robotic exploration programs, which are even more prosperous today and will have a significant impact in the near future. He also believes the success of the robotics experiment centers on the sharp artificial intelligence - robots need to be clever enough to “think for themselves.” “That means they will have to take all the information they can get about their environment and make a decision on what’s safe to do and what’s not safe to do,” he explained.

“Every month we have a meeting with all the employees in my robotic station,” Woodfill said. “That that will happen. Our robotic mission is going to be a very large part of reaching the moon in the next four or five years. That will be coming very soon.”

But people are also questioning NASA’s obsession with man-in-space programs. “Some people say money is not well spent. We could have done it completely robotically,” Phillips said. Woodfill pointed out that keeping human alive in the mission costs far more than using robotics, which becomes the main reason for the astronomical expense of man-in-space missions.

“But I think robots, at least at this point, even if they’re highly intelligent, don’t have the ability to make on-the-spot decisions that can really change the direction of research,” Phillips explained.

In Phillips’ office, there are photos of Ronald McNair, who died during the space shuttle Challenger disaster. They were good friends during high school.

Donald Shemansky, a former researcher at NASA, said that he is concerned about the troubling sign of financial abuse. “There is 80 percent of the budget that goes to man-in-space mission, which is 30 million a day, and only 20 goes to science,” he said, “so they do not describe the man-in-space as a scientific endeavor. They understandably avoid saying anything about that.”

“Then you have to turn around and ask the question: if it’s not a science program, what is it?” he said, “and there’s never an answer. And if you look at the media, they don’t ask questions.”

At every second, an “astronomical” amount of money was spent on funding the “astronomical” mission. But Shemansky questions whether the efforts and funding actually translate into scientific contributions.

He said that NASA cuts the funding once the mission is completed, for instance, the voyage mission. “They don’t have funding to support the research using the sample they took back.” He said he had the data they collected during the mission, but no one is using it.

“Right now, France does far more research and laboratory astrophysics than we do. The European Union has been putting out far more research funding for the infrastructures,” Shemansky said.

“The space exploration has been there for roughly 50 more years.” Shemansky suspects that “it continues for another 30 years and then collapse. Because the economy can’t sustain it.”

“I don’t see it coming to an end until the budget kills everything. If they are really serious about sending astronauts to Mars, then you’ll start to see the cost items spiraling upward and out of control. Because the cost of doing this and keeping someone alive during the process is prohibitively expensive,” Shemansky said.

Now it has been 50 years since the “giant leap for mankind,” and the anniversary of the Apollo mission is believed to be centered on national pride from the past achievement, nostalgia of the history, and excitement for the future of space exploration. However, Barry Vacker, author of “Specter of the Monolith,” has a different interpretation of the legacy Apollo 11 leaves.

Vacker said that he doesn’t believe people have understood the moon landing to its full profoundness. “While part of it was Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon and making one giant leap for mankind, the camera also turned back to show the earth is this orb floating in space.”

That was a stunning and mind-blowing thing for humans to see at that time, Vacker said. “The only conclusion you can draw is that we’re one species sharing that planet with all the other species in a vast cosmic arena.”

He believes even after 50 years, people and the mainstream media is still understanding Apollo 11 as a national pride instead of a self-examination of our science or environment. “It’s up to us to figure out how to live cooperatively and to take care of the planet and do things great as a species and be able to go out and explore the universe in peace.”

Apollo Spacesuit at California Science Center

“Without doubt, the 50th anniversary will center on nationalism, American pride, and a lot of cheerleading for NASA to try to get us back to the moon or to go to Mars or something like that,” Vacker said. “Now, exploring the moon and exploring Mars are good ideas, but we don’t need to go there for no reason. We don’t need to go there to colonize them or strip mine in or whatever.”

Woodfill predicts there is going to be a much greater emphasis on going back to the moon and then onto Mars. “The fact that we’re having all these anniversaries are coming up and people are going to get a nostalgic feeling – ‘why haven’t we gone back?’ “Meanwhile, the progress on space exploration from other countries acts as an incentive for Americans, he said. “Competition breeds success.”

“I think the national pride is what is the engine for the celebrations that were having,” Phillips said. “Because that’s all retrospective looking back and we’re congratulating not just the Apollo astronauts, those crews that landed on the moon, but also the people who led the way to make that happen through projects.” He used to be friends with Ronald McNair, one of the crew members who died during the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Phillips also believes today’s national rivalry is more economically rather than politically motivated. “We’re also in a rivalry in a certain sense with all the people that cooperate with us on the international space station,” he said. “But in one sense, every organization that we partner with, we also cooperate.”

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