It’s been 52 years now! 20th July 1969! A memorable day for humanity. On that day, two people represented the whole world in breaking the boundaries of Earth and started an era of explorations beyond Earth by stepping on the hitherto unexplored soil of Earth’s nearest neighbour in the cosmos, the Moon.
It was not only a story of technological excellence and competency, but also a tale of the human mind’s eternal quest for the unknown and our intention for going beyond our natural habitat, our environment to conquer distant alien worlds. It was 8:17 p.m. on 20th July, that Eagle, the Lunar Lander of the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the Moon. Soon after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the soil of Moon. Edwin Aldrin followed and for two and half hours they ventured, moved and performed experiments on the Lunar surface. It must have been quite an exciting and thrilling experience for them. Much more unique than their extensive training on simulated lunar environments and landscapes on Earth. They were part of the Apollo 11 Mission, now a subject of every science textbook around the world. On their module named Eagle, they landed and later safely returned back to the orbiting module named Columbia, where another astronaut, Michael Collins waited for them. Rest is history. Throughout the world people were enthralled with the scratchy images of Neil Armstrong climbing down the stairs of the spacecraft, jumping gently onto the Moon. His first statement will remain forever a poignant utterance oft-quoted by multitudes of people thereafter for motivating further conquest of space.
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. A statement probably made in the excitement of a successful landing on the Moon, but with a profound effect on generations of space scientists all over the world.
It was the beginning of an era of increasingly more technologically advanced missions to the Moon. From 1969 to 1972 six Apollo missions successfully landed on the Moon. Altogether 12 astronauts stepped onto the moon and carried out complex manoeuvres trying to get as much information possible from the lunar surface, atmosphere, interiors and the possibility of the presence of water molecules.
The Mission to Moon started in earnest when Soviet Russia sent numerous spacecraft to the Moon, some to orbit, some to land under the Luna Programme. Luna 1 had the first successful flyby. Luna 2 crashed into the moon. Luna 3, in 1959, orbited the moon and sent the first close up pictures of the moon’s surface and far side. Russia continued with their lunar programme by sending almost regularly different spacecraft. Some were successful in sending us data that earlier nobody was aware of, but at other times their missions were failures.
One has to remember that the prevalent period was also of tremendous international conflict, mistrust and competition. The Cold War was raging. The USA and its allies were up against arms with Soviet Russia and the Soviet Block countries to prove their excellence in financial, defence, science, technology and global powerplay. The initial success of Soviet Russia in reaching the Moon galvanized the Western Block, especially America. It was the American President, John F. Kennedy who wanted to create a masterstroke for his nation and in 1961 made it a national goal to land an astronaut on the moon and return them safely to Earth within a decade! It was a tall order, given the level of preparedness and prevalent technological efficiency of NASA which was established only in 1958. Mostly to compete with Russia and to win the race of supremacy in space science, NASA had its Mercury and Gemini Programmes to test the possibility of a manned mission to the Moon and return safely to Earth. These projects and their partial successes along with the interest of the scientists, political leaders and general public paved the way for the ambitious Apollo Programme, which in today's money, had a budget of about $225 billion! It seemed that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was instrumental in strengthening the resolve of American technocrats and the scientific community to proceed at a breakneck speed and win the race to the Moon thereby partly winning the imaginary Superpower Challenge between the USSR and USA.
The purpose of the Apollo missions (1963 -72) was to achieve the goal of landing an astronaut on the moon and bringing them back to Earth safely. The first Apollo mission (Apollo 1) ended in a disaster where 3 astronauts died in a fire during a flight pre-test.
The next manned mission was Apollo 7. Apollo 7 spent more time in space than all the Soviet space flights combined up to that time. Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after travelling over 800,000 Km. and orbiting the moon ten times. Apollo 9 was the first manned flight in Earth's orbit and the first manned flight of the lunar module. This flight paved the way for Apollo 10, which was the first to travel to the moon with the entire Apollo configuration.
Apollo 11 started its journey from the Kennedy Space Flight centre on 16th July 1969 on a Saturn V rocket and ultimately the lunar lander slowly settled on the moon on July 20, at around 20:17 UT (IST: July 21, 1:47 hrs.) Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle. Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface six hours and 39 minutes later on July 21 at 02:56 UT (IST: 8:26 hrs). Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent about two and a quarter hours together outside the spacecraft and collected around 20 Kg. of lunar rock to bring back to Earth. Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the Columbia orbiter alone in lunar orbit while they were on the Moon's surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the lunar surface, at a site named Tranquility Base at the Sea of Tranquility ( Sea basically meant plain land on the surface of the Moon), before lifting off to re-join Columbia in lunar orbit. They returned to Earth on 24 July, 1969 after the 8 days travel and crashed onto the Pacific Ocean from where they were collected.
The next three years saw the successful landing of five more spacecraft named Apollo 12-17. Apollo 13 could not land because the crew faced a crisis when the oxygen tank on the service module leaked and they had to come back to earth just orbiting the Moon in a loop. It was a high drama of how they survived the ordeal, which was later made into a popular movie released in 1995 of the same name.
Then there was a pause in Moon missions. That probably started a rumour that the Americans have not at all landed on Moon and staged the whole event in a well-orchestrated make-believe movie set on the Earth itself. Initially, the rumour may have been fuelled by the fierce competition between the superpowers and an effort to demean the tremendous achievement. But later on, the conspiracy theory caught on and reached every corner of the Earth. NASA and other scientific bodies have categorically and repeatedly refuted the conspiracy claim by proper explanations and information.
But, the question remained. Why did space agencies lose interest in Moon? The conspiracy theorists had a field day. But truly speaking, the scientific community was continuously gaining more knowledge about our cosmic neighbour through a stream of space crafts which mostly circled the moon, but some of them landed and sent back data and even in one case some samples as well.
In the past, our interest in space and the moon in particular was driven primarily by scientific curiosity and an interest in trying to understand the past, present and future of the moon. Numerous missions helped the scientists to gather a volume of data about its surface composition, environment and other physical parameters. It slowly dawned onto the global space community that huge deposits of minerals and the presence of water ice can open up enormous possibilities for the future. The Voyages of Discovery gave way to Voyages of Profit!
The hint of the presence of water ice at the permanently shadowed polar regions and discoveries of hydroxyl ion on the surface material, called regolith, fuelled the imagination and aspirations of the scientific community to create a base on the moon as a precursor of starting off a human colony in the future. It was considered profitable to extract the mineral and other chemical deposits. Especially, two factors galvanized the dream of further manned moon missions. One definitely was the presence of water, albeit in solid form. Water separated into hydrogen and oxygen can be tremendously helpful for any space activities and further colonization of the Moon. The oxygen can be used to create an artificial bio-sphere to make habitable zones and use hydrogen and oxygen to refuel spacecraft on their return journey to Earth. In this context, one should note that it was Chandrayaan – 1 which for the first time definitively identified hydroxyl ions in the lunar surface by first smashing an impactor in a controlled manner on November 14, 2008, and showing the presence of the molecule in the ejecta of the impact. It also showed through a specific instrument called Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), fabricated in collaboration with NASA and Brown University, the presence of about 600 million tonnes of water ice in the polar region of the moon. These discoveries generated enthusiasm in scientists to explore the Moon in a much intensive way.
The second important aspect of further moon explorations and human presence is the existence of a magic element called Helium-3. A school of scientists believe that the atomic structure of helium-3 promises to make it possible to use it as fuel for nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, to generate vast amounts of electrical power without creating the troublesome radioactive by-products produced in conventional nuclear reactors. In calculations they have shown that only a few tonnes of Helium 3 can generate enough power for a big country for a year, thereby reducing our dependence on fossil fuels for energy generation. But the process is questionable and difficult. Yet, scientists are quite interested to try out the option, and the moon can provide a reservoir of this magical element that is scarcely found on Earth.
Moon can also play another important role in space exploration. Because of lesser gravity than Earth (1/6) rocket lunches can be easier and less fuel consuming. Moon can be used as an interplanetary rocket launching base.
To date more than 100 missions have been sent towards the moon, only half of them achieved success, some partially though. But if one gets into the statistics, till date, 38 orbiters, 21 landers and 11 rovers have successfully operated and fulfilled their moon missions. At present 3 landers and 2 rovers are present on the moon and 4 orbiters are operational and sending huge amounts of data to the Earth.
Staring from the success of Chandrayaan 1 in 2008, India and ISRO have started an exhaustive programme of the further moon and even planetary missions. Chandrayaan 2 launched in 2019 was the next step. Though a large number of people felt disheartened when the communication with the Lander named Vikram along with the Rover, named Pragyan was lost just 2.1 km above the lunar surface during their controlled descent, to the scientific community Chandrayaan, 2 is mostly successful, since it is orbiting the moon as planned and sending back valuable data for better understanding of the moon, paving the way for future human travel and habitation. Chandrayaan 3 is being planned for a launch in possible 2022 or 2023. The pandemic situation has made it difficult to maintain the schedule earlier planned. ISRO in collaboration with the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA is also planning for the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission sometime in late 2024. ISRO will be fabricating the Lander module whereas, JAXA will provide the orbiter and the rover.
A number of Missions to the moon are being planned. The USA is planning for a manned mission in 2025. Russia, China & Japan have shown interest in human travel to the Moon sometime in the 2030s. So, the future is exciting. The Cold war accelerated Voyages of Discovery to the Moon and the new possible Hot War being anticipated by some may dictate heightened activity for reaching out to the Moon again, this time for benefit of the human society. Though the agreement was drafted and implemented by United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in 1984, stating that “the Agreement provides that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible”, it is to be seen how different countries interpret them. Whether the tensions generated at the South China Seas gets replicated in future at the various seas(plain lands) on the moon named as Tranquility, Serenity, Fertility or Crises. 52 years back when Apollo 11 astronauts left the moon and returned to Earth, left a plaque on the moon with the message, “ We came in Peace for All Mankind”. Whether the present human civilization still respects the sentiments in today’s world is to be seen.
(Dr. Debiprosad Duari is the Director of Research & Academic at M. P. Birla Planetarium, Kolkata, West Bengal. Views expressed in this article are personal and may not reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)