50 years ago, two members of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, set foot on an alien world for the very first time. There shouldn't be any doubt that the Moon landing is one of the greatest achievements of the human race. With that said, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, it's worth thinking about why and how we remember such an occasion.
In this day and age, whether it's humans going to the ISS or space probes heading out into the far reaches of the solar system, it's been clear that space travel has been an enormous boon for science, technology and overall progress for humanity. Apollo 11 is no different in that plenty of science equipment was brought to the surface of the Moon in order to study Earth's one and only natural satellite. And while the scientific community is eternally grateful to the Apollo program for bringing back Moon rocks to study and for leaving behind the still-functioning Laser Ranging Retroreflector, it's still worth mentioning that Apollo wasn't exactly a purely scientific endeavor.
The race for supremacy of the sky was a defining trait of the Cold War. Once the Soviets released Sputnik into orbit, the two superpowers of the era tried to one-up the other in an attempt to show which ideology was superior in conquering space. While a Moon landing sounds like a logical conclusion to any space race, it was also a geopolitical ploy by the United States to make sure the Soviet Union had to work much harder for the last laugh. The first few years of the space race in low-Earth orbit were defined by total Soviet dominance, so by making the endgoal of this race the Moon, the United States effectively bought themselves additional time at a time when they were clearly losing. Think of it like trying to beat Usain Bolt in a race by stretching the 100m goal into a cross-country marathon; suddenly the odds sound much more even.
It was a political gamble that ultimately worked. By the end of the 1960s, Americans were walking on the Lunar surface, while the Soviet Lunar program floundered, and was ultimately cancelled in the 1970s. It should come as no surprise that the US stopped sending astronauts to the Moon around the same time. There could have been a lot more science that could have been done on the Lunar surface, but it didn't matter. The United States got the last laugh.
Things are certainly different these days, though. With more governments and private companies now capable of sending both objects and humans into space, the odds of any one entity having full supremacy of the sky is slimmer than ever. With the ever lowering cost of access to space, there is an emerging possibility that there will be humans permanently stationed on other worlds before the end of the century. As we begin to move towards this reality, whether it's NASA's Artemis program, or Elon Musk's ever lofty goals of conquering Mars, it's worth internalizing how we can build and improve upon the Apollo program from 50 years ago.
Certain things are certainly going to improve over Apollo for sure, such as the inclusion of female astronauts being a cornerstone of the Artemis program. Still, I do worry that this is just going to be another space race, another program where geopolitics trumps everything else. Hopefully, given the generally lower cost of getting into space, we won't have to enter another space era defined by supremacy.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed on the Lunar surface, they left a plaque saying that "We Came in Peace for All Mankind". While I'm thankful that no death laser was ever installed on the Moon, it's a little difficult to take that statement at face-value given what we know about the US-Soviet rivalry at the time. My hope is that this time we will return to the Moon and explore other planetary bodies on their own terms. I want the next era of space travel to be one of peace, for peace.