It was one of those seminal moments in human history, when those fortunate to have been around ask “where were you when humans first landed on the Moon.” This writer was lucky to have been where he watched that electrifying moment live on television, when US astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on to the lunar surface (followed by Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin) July 20, 1969, from the lander named “Eagle”, the Apollo 11 spacecraft having been launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, US, on July 16, 1969.
Nobody who watched it could forget the scene or Armstrong’s words that sent shivers down the spine: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Armstrong maintained he had said “a man,” meaning himself, but the weak audio signal had eaten up “a,” altering the meaning of the sentence; and, of course, today one would prefer him to have said “humankind”). This week the whole world has been commemorating that remarkable achievement. These columns, too, would like to look back to that first Moon landing and discuss its significance for human space exploration and the role it plays in the affairs of nations.
Cold War Backdrop
However grand that first human landing on any body outside Planet Earth was and remains, the harsh reality is that the mission to achieve it was launched with less than altruistic motives. Then US President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo programme in an address to the US Congress on May 26, 1961 at a time when the US was facing serious troubles and existential angst over the failed Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow the Fidel Castro government in Cuba, the escalating and domestically polarising war in Vietnam, the growing disaffection in the US over racial discrimination and civil rights, and the relentless triumphs of the Soviet Union, the ideological enemy, in space. The US astronauts were the kind of clean-cut, all-American heroes that America seemed to be yearning for at the time.
The Soviets had launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth in April 1961, preceded by the first animal in space, the stray dog Laika, who unfortunately died, and almost every mission they undertook was another first. Kennedy poured out his frustrations over this string of Soviet triumphs, and the overwhelming sense of falling confidence and the US trailing its superpower rival in every sphere, in a memo to Vice-President Lyndon Johnson asking about different space missions the US could take up to reverse the trend, and later zeroed in on the manned Moon mission.
Kennedy not only set an “end of the decade” deadline for NASA, his and successive administrations poured money into the space programme. NASA’s budget at one point was 4.6% of the federal budget, compared with half a per cent today, and the Apollo programme was allocated $25 billion at 1960 prices during that decade, amounting to about 2.5% of the US GDP (gross domestic product) per year! These enormous resources provided the leverage for the rapid progress in the US space programme from the first manned flight by US astronaut John Glenn in 1962 to the Moon landing in 1969. There are many in the US and elsewhere who believe that it changed the course of history, and that the Cold War may well have taken a different turn had the US not achieved this significant “victory” in space.
Yet the space programme did not have very widespread support among the American public, this support crossing 50% only immediately after the Moon landing. Several other Moon landings followed after Apollo 11, to considerable but dwindling excitement, not just in the US but around the world. As many as12 astronauts, all of them American, male and white, have landed on the Moon till Apollo 17 in 1972. The US public had by them developed what can only be called boredom over the repetitive been-there-done-that missions, and the US drew the curtains down over its manned space programme except for trips to and prolonged stays at the International Space Station (ISS) in low-earth orbit, and after a while even retired the space shuttle programme used for that purpose. The Soviets having never invested equivalent effort or resources in human space exploration beyond earth orbit, it appeared that the era of human landings on the Moon, perhaps a stepping stone to explorations of other planets, was over.
Nevertheless, it must be said that the first Moon landing had galvanised the entire world and filled it with awe at the extent of human achievement and progress. Despite the American triumphalism at home, as Michael Collins (pilot of the command module orbiting the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin landed on it) admitted, wherever he went people did not so much hail it as an American triumph but as an achievement of all humanity.
Apollo 11: Some Features
Some specifics of the Apollo 11 mission, many common to earlier and later flights of the Apollo programme as well, may also be recalled.
The Saturn V rocket that carried the pioneering astronauts to the Moon was a monster rocket used by NASA from 1967 to 1973, and undertook 13 flights with no accidents. The rocket was designed and built as a collaboration between NASA, Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft (later part of Lockheed) and IBM, all working under the design leadership of Wernher von Braun and his team from the former Nazi Germany. It is classed as a human-rated super-heavy launch vehicle with a three-stage liquid-propellant rocket, which has carried the maximum and hitherto record weight to earth orbit and beyond to the Moon. In Moon launches, the Saturn V launched flights from Apollo 8 onward, with each flight testing crucial aspects before the breakthrough Moon landing, in an incredibly short period of one year.
The Saturn V could launch a massive 140 tonnes to low-earth orbit including the 3rd stage which was to carry on to the Moon, and 43 tonnes including the command module, lander, freight and crew to the Moon itself. To put that in perspective, Chandrayaan-2 with its ‘Bahubali’ or strong-man rocket can carry 4 tonnes to the Moon, but only after several earth orbits and orbit-lifting ‘slingshot’ manoeuvres taking about a month to reach the Moon.
The control centre and on-board systems were primitive by contemporary standards. The first US manned flight had its entire trajectory calculated by hand by the remarkable African-American Katherine Johnson, until an IBM mainframe computer could take over the job after programming by an all-female African-American team, all in then-segregated Virginia state, immortalised by the recent Hollywood film, Hidden Figures.
The on-board computer on the Apollo 11 command module and the ‘Eagle’ lander had some automated guidance and control, forerunners of today’s aircraft fly-by-wire control systems, working under a small room-sized main frame with one-millionth computing capacity compared with a modern i-Phone!
Much of the controls of earlier Apollo flights consisted of manual controls using cables and rods. The crew sat in a tiny space comparable to a modest automobile. The ‘Eagle’ lander also had to have enough power to launch itself from the Moon to join up with the orbiting command module so as to return to Earth with its human passengers, making it a far larger and heavier lander than on Chandrayaan-2.
Are Humans Necessary for Space Exploration?
Although human space exploration came to an end in 1972, except for the ISS in low-earth orbit, robotic space expeditions have continued and have made remarkable progress, raising the old questions of why human space exploration is undertaken at all and what role does it play?
Many countries have conducted numerous experiments and explorations of deep space, not to mention the countless socially and economically useful space activities in earth orbits, such as telecommunication and remote sensing satellites. Many probes, including rovers, have been sent to the Moon, to Mars and even to some moons of Jupiter. Massive telescopes have been placed in space to observe objects and phenomena in deep space, which continue to unravel hitherto unknown aspects and provide insights into the composition and origins of the universe.
The remarkable nuclear-powered US Voyager probes launched in 1977 continue their journey through the solar system, currently more than 16 billion km away from Earth, sending back images and information about what is around them. Humans simply could not even undertake these long and possibly one-way journeys, since the need a constant supply of food, water and oxygen, require protection from cosmic radiation and solar flares, and so on. What can humans do in space that robots cannot do, possible better? What did Armstrong and Aldrin and others who followed them achieve on the Moon that robotic rovers or landers could not have?
This remains true even today. Yet one cannot escape the fact that human achievement has the capacity to arouse human passions, kindle human spirits and enthusiasm, excite and stimulate other related activities, all in a way no robot or instrument can. For all the marvellous scientific achievements of the numerous space missions, only a few of which have been mentioned above, very few people on earth would know much about them or would be moved by them except in a remote sort of way.
Exploration of our Earth, of its polar regions, of its forests and other vast expanses, of remote islands and habitations, of oceans and mountains, have never ceased to amaze and inspire others. The British mountaineer, George Mallory, when asked why he persisted on attempting to scale the world’s tallest mountain, Everest, famously replied, “Because it is there.” Since Apollo 11, a new frontier, space, has been added to the human quest to explore.
True, this has often also been accompanied by more atavistic desires, such as conquest, colonialism, plunder, and boosting national pride, epitomised by planting a flag celebrating the “conquest,” like on Mt. Everest and even on the Moon. Such a nationalistic-ideological quest certainly lay behind the Apollo programme. But mass psychology being what it is, one can ignore such motivations, and the funding that follows, only at one’s peril. And that certainly seems to be a big driver in a second coming for Lunar exploration.
The Moon Beckons Again
The Moon seems to be calling again and has already unleashed a second wave of exploration, and nationalist feelings are not far behind.
China, keen to leave its rather large stamp on everything, has landed a craft on the dark side of the Moon for the first time ever under its Chang’e 4 Mission, including a small bio-sphere with plants and seeds to study possibility of growing food sustainably on the Moon. China is also planning to send human missions there perhaps by 2035, perhaps even setting up a permanent station in the south pole region, incidentally where India’s Chandrayaan-2 proposes to make a soft landing, due to the probable presence of water there.
Japan’s space agency is also planning human missions to the Moon by 2029 and is even building a vehicle in partnership with Toyota that can travel 6,000 km over the lunar surface. Many commercial firms and start-ups, including Israel’s SpaceIL’s Beresheet (genesis or beginning) Mission was about to soft-land on the Moon a few months back but the craft crashed.
Taking note of all this activity, undoubtedly the Chinese efforts in particular, the Trump Administration has announced that it is returning to the Moon in 2024, “this time to stay.” NASA, in partnership with several private companies, is planning to establish a space station orbiting the Moon so as to access different landing sites all over the lunar surface, as well as a permanent station on the Moon itself. The US also plans to use the Moon as a base to launch explorations of other planets, especially Mars. “The Moon is the proving ground, Mars is the horizon goal,” said NASA Administrator Bridenstine recently, predicting a US human Mars landing in 2023.
The nationalistic rivalries are worrisome, especially as there is so little mention of international collaboration. The greed regarding minerals and other resources on the Moon and other bodies in space is another cause for worry. Humans have done enough damage to the Earth through extractive industries, and nationalist and mercantilist rivalries are threatening the Arctic now opening up due to ice-melt caused by global warming, without spreading this disease to outer space too.
India can learn a lot from these experiences. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the scientific community and popular movements should carefully study and try to shape India’s expanding space programme.
Some catering to popular sentiments may be acceptable, but we should be watchful of the thin line separating scientific ambition from nationalist bombast. In particular, ISRO’s planned human launches should be carefully calibrated so as to avoid unnecessary expenditure and excessive prestige projects. India should also be careful to not over-stimulate national expectations, which is quite capable of going out of control and pushing ISRO towards futile or even dangerous directions. The aborted Chandrayaan-2 launch, watched by over 5,000 spectators chanting slogans led by cheerleader ISRO officials, then erupting into loud protestations when the launch countdown was stopped, is a case in point.
ISRO would do well to recall that the Ronald Regan administration mounted pressure to go ahead with the Challenger space shuttle launch despite technical warnings, and the rocket blew up roughly a minute after lift-off. Nobel laureate and popular science writer Richard Feynman later pointed to a defective O-ring seal as forewarned, and the inquiry committee faulted the work culture of NASA. Even now, various press reports are building up pressure for an early Chandrayaan-2 launch. ISRO and India beware!