That 'small step for man' still very visible on the moon


July 20, 2009

Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle and Apollo 15 lunar module, Falcon (Photo: NASA)

Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle and Apollo 15 lunar module, Falcon (Photo: NASA)

Image Gallery (9 images)

Exactly forty years ago today, with fuel running short and alarms buzzing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set their lunar module Eagle down on the face of the moon, and mankind took its very first step on another celestial body. Last week, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) returned its first imagery of the Apollo moon landing sites. Even after all these years, there’s something truly heroic about seeing those lunar module descent stages sitting silently on the surface, testament to man’s imagination and determination.

If you have a close look at the photos accompanying this story, you’ll see most of those modules aren’t much more than tiny dots casting long shadows across the gray of the dusty surface. But the detail of the Apollo 14 site (February, 1971) is breathtaking: you can clearly see the landing module’s shadow, a nearby scientific station and, between the two, the tracks of the astronaut’s footprints (see Image Gallery). So far, the LRO has only photographed five of the six landing sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the next few weeks.

Of course, NASA didn’t launch the LRO just to take anniversary pictures. Its primary mission is to help identify suitable landing sites for future missions, locate potential resources, determine the moon’s radiation levels and test new technologies. NASA hopes to return astronauts to the moon in 2018 with the USD$187 billion Project Constellation. However, recent problems with the Ares rockets – which insiders claim would vibrate like a tuning fork, threatening to shake the rocket to pieces – suggest they may take a little longer. In the meantime, a number of consortiums in the private sector are competing for Google’s Lunar X PRIZE, which calls for a robot lunar landing by 2012.

NASA faces something of a quandary these days: the only missions that truly capture the public imagination are manned but, scientifically-speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to send men into space. Machines and robots are more than capable of performing any required tasks and, because they weigh less, don’t need oxygen and don’t necessarily have to return, they’re much cheaper to launch.

But, admittedly, there’s no romance in robotically-piloted space travel. It’s arguable that the Apollo 11 landing was mankind’s last truly great quest – they estimate one in three people on earth actually watched the landing – and part of what made it so momentous was how very precarious the whole enterprise seemed. Apollo 11’s on-board computer, for example, had a whopping 36Kb of memory – that’s probably less than most emails you send. And Armstrong seized the controls of the Eagle and landed manually, with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, when he realized the computer had picked a landing site strewn with boulders.

They just don’t make adventures like that any more. But you can re-experience some of it by visiting NASA’s website, which has everything from comic book accounts of the mission to a restored moonwalk video. One of the most engaging – and the one that perhaps gives you the best sense of how amazing it seemed 40 years ago – is a nifty little interactive device that allows you to explore both the lunar landing site and the inside of the Eagle, all to the deadpan accompaniment of the original recordings of Armstrong, Aldrin and Mission Control.


Amazing that the footprints are still visible, with the moon's lack of atmosphere and obvious meteorite/debris craters...surprising that "social trail" hasn't been wiped out by impacts over the last 40 years!

Steanson Parks

Almost all the craters and debris on the moon are ancient. There are probably thousands of impacts a year but these are going to be very spread out and very small so the odds of impacts even being close to, let alone wiping out, something a couple of hundered meters long is extremely low

I\'d love to think this would end speculation about us landing on the moon, but any group who is crazy enough to think that NASA sent nuclear bombs to Mars to destroy an alien face the size of a mountain is never going to be pursuaded by photographs, facts and common sense.

John Hande

What? That\'s new to me (nuking Mars)! That\'s crazy, but I could listen to these stories all day long! Thanks for clearing up my confusion about all the craters.

Steanson Parks

No reason to send people into space? Had Skylab been an unmanned observatory satellite, it would have been a complete failure due to the damage it had during launch.

The Hubble telescope and several other satellites would be orbiting junk without the humans who repaired them, saving large amounts of money on replacements.

Manned space vehicles designed from the start for on-orbit service missions would be much less expensive to operate than the Shuttles were. Such a vehicle would only need to carry two people and have a small cargo bay for hauling up replacement parts and any tools needed for the work.

Gregg Eshelman

I hear a lot of talk now about setting up a habitat on Mars 200 days and millions of miles away with no hope of rescue any time soon. My question is why have we not trailed on a smaller scale on the moon that would have to over come similar problems of atmospheric containment low gravity etc surely we would try this smaller step which is Logistically doable rather than some project never tested that will be entirely outside the scope of current funding. This I would assume would be a logical first step to future travel i.e. bigger ship construction with less gravity to hamper size restraints and easily restocked fuel resources from earth. Unless of course we have no idea how this would work out and be under great public scrutiny?

Sam Dalton
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