Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and according to Dr. Alton Dooley, the space program is as important today as it ever has been.
Dooley, the curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, doesn’t remember watching the moon landing — admittedly, he was only 4 months old at the time — but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space program has long fascinated him.
“I had plans from a very early age to be a scientist,” Dooley said. “The question was whether I would be a paleontologist or an astronomer. I didn’t actually decide between them until I was in college. It could easily have gone either way. ... The lunar missions, and for me especially, the deep space probes that NASA was flying in the ’70s and ’80s were a big influence on me and kept my interest in science going.”
The early Apollo capsule launches required huge teams of bold and creative people, Dooley said, because technology at the time was so rudimentary.
“There’s this great scene in the movie ‘Apollo 13’ where they’re trying to work out a new re-entry trajectory,” Dooley said, “and you see all the engineers back at Houston pull out their slide rules and start working out trajectories because the computers on the Apollo capsule couldn’t handle something as complicated as that. My iPhone has orders of magnitude more computing power than Houston (space center) had then.”
In spite of the early technology, on July 20, 1969, NASA was able to place the lunar module Eagle on the moon’s surface. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two men to set foot on the moon’s surface.
The significance of that act at the time is difficult to comprehend now, Dooley said.
“One thing that’s kind of remarkable about that landing ... is that it was broadcast and watched all over the world in a time when that was not an easy thing to do,” he said. “You didn’t have instantaneous A/V communications worldwide at that time. There was no cable television. There were practically no satellites. And yet the whole world was still watching that. Certainly people at that time, I think, recognized the significance of it.”
Much of today’s technology is either directly or indirectly derived from research conducted by NASA, Dooley said, from computer technology to synthetic materials. But there are other technological advancements brought about by the space program that are not so often considered.
For instance, in late 1944, during World War II, a U.S. fleet sailed directly into a typhoon east of Okinawa, Japan, Dooley said. Three destroyers were sunk, planes were lost, and other ships were badly damaged.
In 1952, he said, a tornado swept through Carswell Air Force Base in Texas, putting about a third of the U.S. strategic bomber fleet out of commission.
Today, Dooley said, such disasters are all but impossible, thanks to information gleaned from the many weather satellites orbiting the Earth.
“All the weather information that we take for granted derives directly from space program research, and the moon launch was part of that,” Dooley said. “That was kind of the visible public relations part of it, but that same technology that went into developing the Saturn V (rocket) is the same technology that’s used to put up satellites today.”
In addition, Dooley said, the moon rocks that were gathered during the Apollo 11 mission have proved invaluable in helping answer an age-old question: Where did the moon come from?
“There are pretty widely accepted ideas now about how the moon formed and when it formed, although a lot of the details still have to be worked out,” he said. “Part of the evidence for that derives directly from samples that were brought back from the lunar missions. They enabled us to do direct measurements of exactly what the moon is made out of and exactly how old some of the rocks on the surface are.”
As recently as 40 years ago, Dooley said, scientists had a lot of theories, but no clear answers on how the moon formed.
After studying the rock samples from the lunar missions, he said, it now is believed that the moon is just under 4 1/2 billion years old, the result of the early, still forming “proto-Earth” colliding with another planet. When the collision occurred, material was blasted off of the proto-Earth and formed a ring around it, which gradually coalesced into the moon.
Some people believe that there may have been two moons at one time that collided with each other to form the moon as we know it, while others believe that the geological anomalies on the far side of the moon could have occurred in other ways, Dooley said.
“But it looks likely that the Earth collided with something and the moon is material that was knocked off,” he said. “Part of the justification for that hypothesis ... is because of the samples of the moon that were brought back by Apollo. We were able to compare pieces of the moon directly to pieces of the Earth and see how their compositions compare, see what the similarities and the differences are. It turns out that the moon and the Earth are very similar.”
Today, Dooley said, NASA still is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. The New Horizons space probe is rapidly approaching Pluto, and the Curiosity rover still is trundling across the surface of Mars, snapping pictures and gathering information.
However, Dooley said, today’s public seems to lack interest in space exploration compared to previous decades.
“I wish we had a manned space flight program going,” he said. “It’s very easy to talk about the risks, the cost, things like that, but we gain so much by doing it. If nothing else, it inspires the populace, getting everybody to recognize that this is something we can do. I think that alone makes it worthwhile.”
Added Dooley, “Has the U.S. ever been as proud of something as the moon landing in 1969?”