Fifty years ago the world held its breath as Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon.
Now, half a century after the Apollo 11 mission, NASA are planning their next big deep space venture.
Speaking to Scotland Tonight, NASA historian Brian Odom reflected on the legacy of the first steps on the moon and discussed plans for humans to live on the planet.
He said: “We’re going to learn how to sustain ourselves on the moon and to stay there and to live off the land and then to serve as a catapult for deeper space technology.”
Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
John MacKay: Brian, it’s remarkable to think that this was half a century ago.
Brian Odom: It is, really. Coming around Huntsville, Alabama it seems like it was just yesterday. Everybody talks about it like it’s still fresh on their minds. They know where they were, what they were watching, who they were with. So it’s a long time ago but I think it’s still very recent in people’s opinion. President Kennedy said it had to be achieved by the end of the 1960s that was very ambitious.
John: But it couldn’t have just been fantasy, he must have had some scientific basis for saying that? It was always, theoretically at least, achievable?
Brian: It was. I think a lot of the work that had kind of paved the way for this was done throughout the decade of the 1950s. You’d seen the success of, you know, actually the Sputnik launch what the Russians had been able to accomplish, America’s response to that with the Explorer 1 satellite. Then there was the first human spaceflight, Yuri Gagarin, who orbits the Earth in April 1961. In May of 1961, America’s response, Alan Shepard. So Kennedy had a lot of inside information as well. He asked NASA that had been formed in 1958, ‘What can we do? What’s the next best step?’ And a lot of this would involve, definitely it was part of the Cold War propaganda, so he understood how important it was to win the hearts and minds of the world. America was suffering. It was reeling from, you know, they had seen the Soviet Union, Americans had seen the Soviet Union as a vast, backward technological civilisation. But with the success of Sputnik and Gagarin, people wanted to really step back into the game. Because to lose that, in Kennedy’s mind, would have been a very important blow.
John: Although there was much praise for landing on the moon, there is some criticism, people saying ‘what did it actually achieve, what was the point?’ What would you say to them?
Brian: I think a lot of that, the decade of the 1960s socially was a very turbulent decade. A lot of different things going on, the civil rights movement in America, across the world. The world was really coming into this modern era, the young generation rising up, asking for better claim. Women’s rights movement, the environmental movement. And a lot of people were asking the question, ‘Couldn’t this money be better spent somewhere else? The war on poverty?’ But I think when you think about the impact that Apollo had, that program really changed the world and the way we thought about technology. It developed things. It had technology trade offs that come back to us on earth, things that may have taken longer. We didn’t invent solid-state computer technology, but it pushes it and advances it to such a level that the rest of the world benefits from that and these benefits shouldn’t be forgotten.
John: Have we lost interest in the moon since the last moon landings, do you think?
Brain: I think that was a part of the Apollo program towards the end. It was hard to measure, hard to recreate the success and the enthusiasm of the Apollo 11 mission. Over the course of the rest of the mission, they received less and less… they were less and less popular. But I think over the last, technology between 1972, the last time we went to the moon and today, the science and what we know about the moon and the types of questions that there are that we can ask about the moon, about what it will tell us about ourselves. That’s such an important thing that NASA, the technology is there today, industrial partners are ready. People like Blue Origin, SpaceX, all of these people that are really behind it. It’s going to take all of us but also the world. I mean, the European Space Agency is contributing a valuable piece of this architecture, the Orion space capsule. So this time, whereas Apollo was in this Cold War environment, I think today we’re going back with, it’s going to take the entire world. It’s going to take industry, government working hand in glove to go back. But the moon is there to tell us how to become an interplanetary species. It’s there to tell us if we’re going to go deeper into space, onto Mars, the moon is the perfect staging point to learn how to be sustainable and to understand the science of where we’re going.
John: So you have no doubt that man or woman will land on the moon again?
Brian: Yes. Right now, the Artemis program, Marshall, we’re producing the space launch system. The next big deep space vehicle that’s going to carry the first woman and the next man back to the moon by 2024. In between 2024 and 2028, we’re going to learn how to sustain ourselves on the moon and to stay there and to live off the land and then to serve as a catapult for deeper space technology. I think the workforce at NASA is just incredibly eager to see the next big accomplishment and the next big technological marvel, to see where the next paradigm in technology is going to take us. That’s why we do these things. They’re all very difficult and all very expensive. But the return that we get out of this investment is tenfold.