Moon and Humans: Fiftieth Anniversary of Moon Landing


by Kirthi Tennakone

On 16th July 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Eldrin Buzz and Michael Collins, lifted off from the launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida to begin their epoch-making journey to moon. Three days later , they orbited moon and Armstrong and Eldrin docked into a lunar excursion module , descended from the command spacecraft and landed on moon on the 20th of July. After staying nearly one day on the lunar surface, two astronauts joined Collins in the command module, orbiting the moon and safely splashed to earth on 24th July. The 50th anniversary of this miraculous feat is celebrated worldwide in July this year.

Moon means much to humans. It is not just an awesome waxing and waning object in the sky, unimportant to earthly affairs. Moon’s physical interaction with the earth, has played a profound role in geological and biological evolution of earth. Similarly, the consequences of its visibility to us and finally being able to land there and explore, greatly advanced of human civilization.

Moon’s appearance in the sky, motivated the ancient man; spiritually, intellectually and inspired him to religion, literature, and science. Moon is auspicious to all religions and lunar phases determine the timing of religious rituals. No culture considers moon an evil, instead a symbol serenity in the heavens. Poetry, associates moon with beauty, compassion and empathy. Moon exhibited, ‘free of charge’ to children born on this earth, arouse their curiosity. Rhythms, rather than eternal monotony made us to think, enjoy and advance. The first rhythm is day and night, second is waxing and waning of the moon and the third is annual cycle of seasons.

To the ancients, without artificial lights and clocks, the moon has been practically meaningful. Moon helped hunting and movements during the nighttime and served as the time keeper to manage agriculture and plan future events.

Moon is believed have originated as the result of a collision of a Mars sized object with earth. Matter ejected from the cataclysm condensed into moon. Ever since this cosmic crash, moon continuously interacted with earth. The physical effect of moon on earth is its gravitational attraction, causing tides in our oceans. Moon also stabilize Earth’s spin against wobbling. Excessive wobbling, seriously affect the global climate. Thus moon controls the existing favourable climate we enjoy. Millions of years ago, moon orbited closer to the earth and the tidal effect on oceans has been stronger. Earth-moon gravitational attraction, landscaped the earth, evolving an environment conducive to life.

Early cultures, both Eastern as well as Western, considered, sun, moon and planets as deities. Alternative views based on rational thinking, met with fierce opposition of the religious orthodoxy. When the Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras of Claomenace (500-428 BC) opined, moon is a rock made visible by light emanating from the hot fiery sun. He was sentenced to death and arrested, but managed escape Athens. Despite resistance of religious and political establishment, the wise men of antiquity accepted rational ideas, continued to ponder, arriving at ground breaking conclusions. Greek and Indian astronomers succeeded in determining the earth-moon distance and the sizes of sun and moon in comparison to the earth. Invention of the telescope proved that moon is a huge spherical rock displaying a terrain of mountains and valleys, pockmarked with carters.

Sir Isaac Newton revolutnnized the understanding of heavens by pointing out that an apple falling to the ground and moon circling round the earth are caused by the same force – the gravitational attraction. Newton’s theory provided machinery to perform precise calculations to determine all the details pertaining to the motion of moon and planets. Subsequently, with the help of powerful telescopes, the moon was mapped to an accuracy less than hundred feet. The physical characteristics of the lunar environment such as temperature and why an atmosphere cannot exist were understood. Remarkably, all above information was ascertained via measurement conducted on earth.

Man’s greed for adventure never ends. During the last century, every nook and corner of the earth were explored, either for profit or curiosity. Going to moon, a quantum leap in adventure had been topic for writers of science fiction. French novelist Jules Verne, imagined sending three men to moon by a projectile fired from a gigantic cannon and presented scientifically valid calculations. Science fiction motivated, scientists, who theorized propositions to demonstrate, the possibility of achieving space travel. Jules Verne’s novel "From Earth to Moon" published 1865, fascinated the Russian physics teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, to take up studies in rocketry and astronautics. He presented calculations to convince the possibility of using rockets for space travel.

Rockets originated with the discovery of gunpowder in China. They made pyrotechnic rockets using bamboo tubes. Traditional Sri Lankan fireworks adopted the same technique. Chinese, Indians and Mongols used rockets as battle field weapons, much earlier than Europeans. Tippu Sultan, the Ruler of Mysore, fought the British in 1784, using rockets. Having range exceeding 2km, they were the most advanced missiles at the time. The British copied Mysore technology and used it in Napoleonic Wars. At the height of the World War II, Germany launched thousands of missiles (named V2) against Allied cities.

Although the accuracy of reaching the target had been poor, they were the first long range guided missiles. After the war, the United States and Russia grabbed German V2 technology and developed the art of further improving the range and accuracy. Russia, in 1957 successfully tested the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of directing a nuclear war head across continents to a predetermined target. One year later the United States acquired the same capability. Russia, ahead of United States adopted, ICBM rockets to place a satellite in orbit around earth in the same year the missile was tested, opening the space-age. In 1959 Russia succeeded in accomplishing another milestone in space technology. Their spacecraft Luna-3, encircled moon and photographed the lunars’ far side.

The competition between the United States and Russia hastened and invigorated space technology geared towards manned space flights. The Russian Yuri Gagarin was the first to orbit earth and return safely. Three weeks later in 1961, American astronaut Alan Shepard wa s launched into outer space and returned home. Time was ripe for commissioning a mission to our nearest celestial neighbor. Who is going to do it first, America or Russia? Just after Alan Shepard’s leap into space, the President John F. Kennedy, announced the goal of sending a crew of men to moon before a session of Congress. Both the United States and Russia had the capability of delivering guided rockets to moon, 240,000 miles away. However in all previous manned space missions, distances the rockets travelled had been around hundred miles. Travelling three days in space to cover a distance 240,000 miles, landing on moon and safe return is an arduous challenge, but not impossible in theory and practice. The Apollo Project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of United States, has been costliest project in peace time human history, which required research and development in many areas, additional to astronautics. After a series of test space vehicle launchings, the Apollo 11 landed two men Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on moon 20th July 1969.

When Neil Armstrong descended a ladder towards the lunar surface, he uttered some words which media reported as "That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind". Armstrong had insisted his words were "That’s one small step for man". We are bombarded with media announcements regarding all kinds of happenings and well aware of their degree of reliability. However, in this instance, what media reported is, literally correct. Moon landing was indeed a giant leap for mankind.

Despite many first achievements in space technology, why didn’t the Soviet Union succeed in sending men to moon? Is it lack of resources or inefficiency in coordination of an activity of this magnitude? Andrei Sakharov, Russian physicist and human rights activist, popularly known as the "Russia’s Father of the Hydrogen Bomb" wrote an open letter to Kremlin in 1970, where he implicated that only a democracy can, successfully implement a plan of this magnitude.

There had also been a criticism , the expenditure involved in the moon landing project is not warranted, because of more urgent priorities at the ground level and the scientific information gained from the project could have been acquired equally well through a lot cheaper unmanned missions. The argument regarding gathering of scientific information may be correct. The greatest impact of moon landing on society at large is the vivid demonstration of the power of human rational thinking to plan and execute things, considered impossible for generations.

Author Prof.Kirthi Tennakone can be reached via 

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...