JULY 20, 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of a profoundly historic event, one that is etched forever in the world’s collective consciousness. It is, in fact, widely considered the greatest human achievement in all of history. For it was on 20 July 1969, that the Apollo 11 spacecraft, four days after leaving Planet Earth, landed on the surface of the Moon, and two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first human beings to walk on another world besides Earth. It was the culmination of a decade of intense effort in which the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the (erstwhile) Soviet Union, competed in the Space Race to land a man on the Moon. That goal was accomplished by America with its Apollo space program, earning the country outstanding acclaim on the world stage and cementing its position as the leader in human progress. The voyage to the moon was a monumental achievement for all human beings as well. It was the opening of a new frontier for the human race. Throughout our existence, people were bound solely to the surface of the Earth, the planet that is our home. In the twentieth century, that changed. We could head out towards the cosmos and explore outer space.
The manned moon landing is the biggest milestone in this new era of human exploration because it is the first time that human beings stepped onto the surface of another one of the many planetary bodies in space. The Moon is of course, Earth’s companion, always nearby. But going there marks the beginning of the inroads humanity can now make into the new realm of space for its future. As per Neil Armstrong’s first words when he stepped out of his lander and onto the lunar landscape, it was one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. It is exactly half a century since that giant leap was undertaken. Commemorations by the world are enthusiastic. NASA and several other science and technology organizations are holding various events. Apollo 11is being re-created, such as live-streaming of the recordings of the mission on the website Apollo in Real Time. And of course, people are extensively reviewing the endeavour and legacy of the Apollo 11 voyage to the moon. Just what is the meaning, though, of the effort to land men on the moon and its successful conclusion? Why did America embark on the ambitious Apollo project, what were its consequences, and what does the end result signify? These are complex questions that have been widely debated and discussed since the beginning of the Space Race. The space program has been controversial in many ways, but there is every reason to consider it a worthy endeavour of humanity.
The Space Race was conducted throughout a turbulent decade for America, marked by the Civil Rights Movement, widespread racial unrest, the development of the counter-culture, and the Vietnam debacle. It also came in the midst of a century that saw intense human violence, conflict and upheaval throughout the world. Literally towering above all of this, the Apollo space program represented humanity’s pure efforts to push its collective boundaries. But the apparent lack of practical benefit from travelling into space, compared with the cost, led countless to view the program as a waste of resources and a diversion from the problems that existed on Earth. At the same time, America and Russia’s frenzied rush into space have yielded many obvious and lasting benefits. It greatly accelerated advances in technology, with several areas such as electronics, computing, rocketry, telecommunications, and even food safety, improved to service the men sent to outer space and now benefiting us. It contributed significantly to natural science, as what the Apollo astronauts left on and took from the Moon helped scientists to better understand the Solar System and its history. The satellites that surround the Earth and service its people in countless ways are part of the legacy of Apollo. Even besides that, the rush into space has, all in all, tremendously pushed forward the boundaries of human prowess.
The Apollo space program harbors immensely valuable lessons for humanity. For one, it showed how much a nation could achieve through collective effort. The moon landing was achieved against all odds. The space program began little more than half a century since the demise of the horse and buggy. America in the beginning had almost no spaceflight technology. On top of that, America spent the sixties expending much of its resources on the Vietnam War. It seemed unlikely that the nation could fulfill President Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and back before the end of the decade. How the people of America and other countries that were involved, did it is something we should all study and take inspiration from. The greatest result of the Apollo space program may well be its most surprising, for in the course of exploring outer space for the first time, human beings ended up discovering our own planet, Earth, for the first time. We have always lived on Earth and saw it as an endless expanse. But the astronauts of the 60s were the first to set eyes on our world as a whole. The photographs they took, most notably Earthrise in 1968 and Blue Marble in 1972, allowed them to share the sight with everybody back home.
Seeing Earth as a single, lonely object in the vast expanse of space caused a profound shift in our thinking, as we realized how limited the Earth was and how it was everything we had. The motivation to take care of it was instilled in us. The space flights thus furthered anti-war sentiment and galvanized the environmental movement. That is our most important lesson from our voyages into outer space. As we celebrate the monumental feat of landing a man on the Moon, we must bear in mind that the Cosmos is magnificent and filled with endless wonder but that the Earth is also magnificent – and fragile, at the same time. It is our only home where we are provided with everything we need. As we reach for the stars, it is vital that we do everything we can, using the same determination and ingenuity that allowed us to go to the Moon, to take care of humanity’s home world.
— The writer is an environmental journalist and director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management.