One small STEM for a man, 50 years ago

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this photograph with a 70-millimeter lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the Eagle to explore the Sea of Tranquility region of the moon, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the command and service modules Columbia in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA

“Thousands upon thousands of years ago, at the dawn of human history, Stone Age men gazed at the moon and wondered just what it was.”

Now we know. I can spell step, but it was STEM, namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics, that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface and back 50 years ago this month. STEM did it, together with the vision of President Kennedy and the skill and courage of the astronauts and all those responsible for the missions.

Ten other men walked on the moon, but it’s been 46 years since the last human stepped off and came home. Humankind has not yet made the giant leap that Neil Armstrong expected. But robots have, with astounding results, landed on Venus, explored the surface of Mars and visited some of the dozens of moons orbiting the outer planets.

On July 20­, 1969, I was one of millions watching television as the lunar module landed, did not tip over and did not sink into a deep sea of dust. It was late at night in England, and I had my Ph.D. oral exam the next morning, but watching this took precedence!

Ten years earlier no one had ever seen the back side of the moon. It is not perfectly spherical and is tidally locked, always keeping one half facing Earth, apart from a small wobble. Then in 1959 the Russians sent the Luna 3 spacecraft around the back and sent some photographs. It is different, no large dark patches with poetic names like Mare Tranquillitatis, meaning Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed.

In the 1970s, the Soviets sent three robots to the moon, returning samples with traces of water. But just last year, in August 2018, NASA instruments on an Indian spaceship discovered water ice near the moon’s south pole. Water can be broken down using solar power into hydrogen and oxygen – rocket fuel!

As the moon is smaller than Earth, its surface gravity is six times less. So, our intrepid spacemen (but not humankind) could take giant leaps or hit a golf ball for miles. Rockets can take off with much less energy than from Earth, enabling the astronauts to come home. One day the moon could become a stepping stone to the planets.

I thank Sir Patrick Moore, who wrote the first sentence, and for letting me look at the moon through his telescope when I was just 13.

This is a version of an article that originally appeared in Positively Naperville.