Moonwalk: 50 years on

Posted on 01/07/2019 by IED

Half a century ago, man first walked on the Moon. Colin Ledsome CEng FIED looks back to a time of momentous achievement

It is 50 years since Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin walked on the Moon, not forgetting Michael Collins, who remained in orbit waiting for their return from the surface. The landing took place on 20 July 1969, but the first step on the surface was early the next day, with an estimated 300 million people watching on television.

The last steps on the Moon were on 14 December 1972. This time ‘Gene’ Cernan and Harrison Schmitt did the walking and drove 35.74 Kilometres in a Lunar Rover. Ron Evans waited in orbit on that occasion. Schmitt was a professional geologist and the only scientist to visit the Moon. Cernan’s last words on the Moon were: “OK, let’s get this mother out of here!” Understandably, not as celebrated as the “One small step“ etc. None of the Apollo 11 or 17 crews went into space again.

The achievement of the Apollo missions was indeed a giant leap for mankind. The sadness that we haven’t been back yet is frustrating for those who worked on it. That means that all of the experience gained is only available from the records and not from personal memory. Many things will have to be learned all over again. Some complain at the cost, but a study looking at the benefits to the American economy of new materials, computer and control systems, manufacturing facilities, project management techniques and much more, derived from the programme, showed that Apollo paid for itself 10 times over.

In history, most major periods of technological advance are the result of military pressure. The likelihood of war is a great incentive and frequently battles are won by the side with the best technology. The Apollo programme was, in many ways, a proxy for the cold war with the then USSR.

Since then, the growing space activity, and the spin-off capabilities, has attracted marketplace interest and the next major expeditions into space are likely to be mainly privately funded, with the prospect of eventual profit.

Even today, the large investment needed for a new communications satellite and its launch may be recovered within a year and it will remain in service for at least 10 years. Even the initial investment has come down, since many of the basic satellite structures and most of the equipment is now available ‘off-the-shelf’, from various suppliers, including a significant number in the UK.

The space industry is becoming a huge incentive for technological advance without going to war.

I was working on the design of Apollo Skylab when Apollo 11 flew, and so I welcome the new impetus to venture out beyond the security of Earth. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the early space pioneers, said in 1895: “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not live in the cradle forever.


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