The moon landing 50 years ago –The immense possibilities arising upon science and politics having a mutual vision

The landing of the first humans on the moon on 20 July 1969 was one of the most moving moments of the 20th century and the television broadcast of the „Apollo 11“ mission its first and largest global media event. Up to 600 million people worldwide watched Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the Earth’s satellitein the night from 20 to 21 July 1969. With a world population of 3.5 billion at that time, that was equal to about one in six earthlings and about one in four adults. At the same time, the moon landing of the Americans is still today regarded as a hardly comprehensible technological masterpiece, especially if one considers the means of that time. No other humans have landed on the earth’s satellite since the Apollo program ended in 1972. The Soviet Union stopped its manned moon flight program already in 1969 after several technical setbacks. And how difficult it is still today to fly to the moon, the Indians had to recognize most recently, as they had to stop the launch of their moon rocket „because of technical problems“. And still in 2013 and 2019 the Chinese state media celebratedenthusiastically that a (unmanned!) space craft of theirs managed to land on the moon (their program should make a manned moon landing possible only in the 2030s).

On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V launcher took off at Cape Canaveral. Three days later it reached the moon orbit, and on 20 July the lunar module „Eagle“ landed on the lunar surface. On July 21 at 3.56 a.m. Central European Summer Time – in the USA it was still the evening of 20 July – „Apollo 11“ commander Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon saying his famous words: „A small step for [a] man – one giant leap for mankind“. Shortly thereafter, Buzz Aldrin followed Armstrong. Meanwhile, Michael Collins, the third crew member, circumnavigated the moon in the Command Module. After two and a half hours the humans left the moon again and returned to earth on July 24th.

It all began with US President John F. Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress on 25 May 1961, just one and a half months after Soviet astronaut Juri Gagarin launched into space. In this speech he defined the goal to bring a man to the moon and back in this very decade:

„I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.“

Even some NASA officials doubted the feasibility of this project, and in 1963 Kennedy himself was inclined to agree to a joint US-Soviet lunar mission. The landing of humans on the moon until the end of 1969 required a tremendous technological effort and creativity, and with a total of about 25.4 billion dollars (153 billion dollars in 2018’s purchasing power) no less exorbitant financial resources. It was the largest sum ever raised by a nation for a technological projectduring peacetime. The Apollo enterprise impressively demonstrated how political and technical scientific collaboration in a mammoth organization like NASA can solve a problem of this magnitude with so many unknowns within a defined time frame. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial companies and universities – as well as the knowledge of the German Luftwaffe: the huge launcher „Saturn V“, with a height of over 110 meters to date the largest rocket in the world, was created under the leadership of the former NSDAP member and SS-SturmbannführerWernher von Braun.

How many unanswered questions there were at the beginning of the project and how uncertain its success was, can be seen from the fact that there are many different ways to fly to the moon:

  • Flight into the moon orbit and then decoupling a landing facility from there (which was ultimately the way NASA did it)
  • Direct flight from Earth to the Moon
  • Flight of individual parts into the Earth’s orbit, which are then assembled into a lunar spacecraft
  • Flight of two spaceships directly to the moon, one with the material for the return flight, the other with the astronauts.

The engineers and scientists had to deal with a myriad of unknown variables. That, too, made the Apollo program and the moon landings one of the most important technological achievements in the history of mankind. It also gave rise to new fields of technology that are still important today as well as to companies that ended up commercializing them. The Apollo program was a significant driver towards digitalization. The computers designed for Apollo, for example, were a driving force behind early research into integrated circuits, without which no computer would run today.

The Apollo program had a clear ideological goal: to outstrip the Soviet Union in space in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free market system. It is an irony that in order to achieve this goal, it was necessary to organize enormous public resources within a vast, centralized government bureaucracy that functions anything but according to the rules of a decentralized market. No private entrepreneur would have ever taken on such a task.

Thus the moon landing is a wonderful example of what is possible when society, government and science work together, connected by a common vision. What a powerful force scientific and technological progress has when it is associated with a visionary goal! Has anyone ever denounced the immense sums of money that were necessary to put a man on the moon? By way of comparison, the Vietnam War, which ran almost parallel to the Apollo program, cost American taxpayers the current equivalent of 660 billion dollars, four times as much as the entire Apollo program. And the global costs for bailing out the banks in 2008 equally exceed the Apollo program: In Germany alone they accumulate to around 70 billion euro. Is it not much more sensible to follow a technological vision for a better world than to pay war-hungry generals or incompetent bankers? There surely exist enough projects for this still today.

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