The Legacy Left by One Small Step: A defining moment in space exploration

The Soviet Union tested the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957 and, two months later, they launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. In response, the U.S. created NASA, which in effect usurped the American scientific research sector to wage a fight on a new front in the Cold War: the Space Race. The Soviet Union took an early lead when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961. To level the playing field, President Kennedy announced a new goal, one that was so audacious, it meant both sides had to go back to the drawing board. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade,” he declared.

The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the Moon and Apollo 11 first achieved this goal, but the road to this mission was a bloody one. Eight NASA astronauts died across five separate accidents leading up to Apollo 11, highlighting the high level of ambient risk tolerated to hasten progress.

Many infer that the Apollo missions were popular because of the significant media attention they garnered but this is false. Throughout the 60s, 45–60% of Americans believed the government was overspending on space exploration. The day before Apollo 11 launched, there were protests outside the Kennedy Space Center. People were frustrated by the racial and financial inequalities in society and identified the NASA space program as the quintessence of this excess. An editorial in the Los Angeles Sentinel published days before the landing put a fine point on the discontentment. It read, “does the fact that we are preparing for space travel circumvent the fact that hunger and strife still exist unabated in this wonderful country of a plenty?”

Throughout the 1960s, 45–60% of Americans believed the government was overspending on space exploration.

The world was watching, with 530 million people across the globe tuning in to view the Apollo 11 coverage. Half a century on, it’s hard to imagine the apprehension that hung in the air just prior to the landing. People surely wondered whether NASA would be punished for its hubris, just as the Titanic was. Fittingly, Apollo is the Greek god of archery and he is said to have never missed the target. At 56 minutes and 15 seconds past 3am on the morning of 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong took one small step, becoming the first person in history to set foot on the Moon. He was joined on the desolate surface 19 minutes later by Buzz Aldrin. In 1903, the Wright brothers flew the Wright Flyer, the first powered aircraft in history; just 66 years on, a piece of wood from this plane’s propeller was taken to the Moon by Armstrong.

The expediency of getting to the Moon gave way and peace was then the prevailing message. President Nixon spoke to them from ground control, saying “as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquillity, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of Man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.” The astronauts left behind a gold olive branch to symbolise peace and a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

More than 20 kg of rock was brought back from the Moon. After the Apollo program ended, pieces of the rock were gifted to countries around the world. Ireland received a piece, which was housed in Dunsink Observatory until 1977, when a fire broke out in the observatory. The rock, worth in the region of €5 million, was then accidentally discarded with the debris. It is now somewhere in Finglas dump.

No-one has been to the Moon since the Apollo 17 astronauts left on 14 December 1972. That may change though, with both the European Space Agency and NASA talking about establishing a permanent base on the Moon. Private companies are entering the picture too, and SpaceX have also proposed a crewed mission to Mars.

Part of the reason the Moon has remained uninhabited for the last 47 years is that robotic missions have become far more cost effective. Robots are happy to work without food or sleep so if the sole goal is research, sending a robot is best. Since migrating out of Africa, Homo sapiens has had an innate desire to explore next frontier, for good or ill. If the aim is to inspire the collective imagination, then astronauts do a better job. Although some feel that exploration for exploration’s sake is unjustified. Poet Dorothy Drain wrote, from the perspective of the Moon, “Kindly tell the scientists / I am overworked / And wish / They would leave me alone with my craters.”

It also had an immense influence on popular culture, from Hollywood blockbusters and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, to conspiracy theorists and inspiring generations of scientists.

Such a universal goal of going to the Moon managed to dissolve the boundaries of tribalism and unite people, something which would be welcomed in today’s divisive climate. It also had an immense influence on popular culture, from Hollywood blockbusters and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, to conspiracy theorists and inspiring generations of scientists. An image of Earth called Earthrise taken from lunar orbit in 1968 by astronaut William Anders ignited the environmental movement of today. Anders said of the photograph, “we set out to explore the Moon and instead we discovered the Earth.” There were more tangible benefits to the Apollo program, too. “Power consumption. Mass. Volume. Data rate. All the things that were important to making space flight feasible led to major changes in technology,” said Professor Scott Hubbard, Stanford University.

Half a century on, the Apollo program may well be the most important event of the 20th century and the pinnacle of human ingenuity to date. The mission proved to be a profound existential moment as millions wondered together about their place in the cosmos, but the motivations to get to the Moon were rooted in a power struggle between superpowers. Today’s impetus of leaving Earth once more stems from materialism (i.e., the resources there we could use) but, similarly, it is possible to envisage these base motivations giving way to something more profound. In any case, perhaps the reason that President Kennedy gave originally is sufficient: “We choose to go to the Moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard.”