Humanity first touched the Moon 50 years ago – completing a mission that is perhaps the most ambitious and great achievement of mankind.
The mission united the world as it watched, but also resulted from discord that split it in two. And it remains so unbelievable in part because it was also the end of the most significant part of the space race, with space travel soon after never ascending to such heights or levels of interest again.
When did we go to the Moon?
The three astronauts in Apollo 11 set off on 16 July, 1969. After flying for three days, they entered lunar orbit, and on 20 July, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lander and became the first person to ever walk on the Moon.
After more than eight days in space, they dropped down on Earth and were hailed as heroes.
Just a few years and missions later, in December 1972, the last person step foot on the Moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission. No human has ventured there – or even outside of low-Earth orbit – since.
How did we get there?
With great difficulty. Which in turn was overcome by hard work and ingenuity, as part of the culmination of thousands of years of human curiosity.
The Moon is, obviously, a long way away: about 250,000 miles. And getting there also means leaving Earth’s powerful gravity, which is just as difficult, pulling anything down and requiring vast power.
That power came in the form of the Saturn V rocket, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever made, and arguably the most mighty piece of machinery that humanity has ever put together.
On top sat the three astronauts, in a much smaller capsule. The rocket carried the astronauts up into space, but it was this capsule that would carry them to the Moon and back, once they had managed to escape Earth.
That capsule, known as the command service module, was actually made up of three parts: the command module, that served as the astronauts’ home through the mission, the service module that contained the bits that powered them through space and kept them alive, and the lunar module.
It was only that latter part that ever made its way to the Moon’s surface, after detaching from the rest and touching down on the ground. After Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had explored the Moon, they climbed back into the ascent stage part of that lunar module and used it to fly back up and attach to the main craft, which was being piloted by their colleague Michael Collins.
They would then gradually float back to Earth, crashing down to land and completing their mission successfully.
Why did we go?
There was never any one justification for heading to the Moon. And many people thought we should head there for no reason at all – just because we can, and therefore should.
But there was another pressing reason: because other people could. The Moon landing was the crescendo of the Space Race, which had seen the US battle with the Soviet space programme to get to a range of different milestones.
That didn’t start with the Moon. Both countries – embroiled at the same time in the Cold War – flung rockets, satellites, animals and people into space to demonstrate their power, and putting a man on the Moon became the inevitable conclusion of that work.
All of those various aims and desires came wrapped together in a speech given by John F Kennedy in 1961, which helped launch the race for the Moon and set down the reasons for doing so.
“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 earth,” he said. ”No single space project in this period will be more exciting, or more impressive, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Getting there helped improve science in myriad ways. A variety of breakthroughs came as a result of the work done to get humanity to the Moon, and when the astronauts touched down they also helped with scientific work in unprecedented ways – they gathered up Moon rocks, left behind sensors, and even the ways that their bodies responded to the stress and strangeness of space was studied to give information that is still being studied to this day.