15 July 2019

Looking back on a historic moment

Fifty years after the moon landing

): Apollo 11-astronaut Edwin Aldrin met Neil Armstrong in de weerspiegeling. Bron: NASA.
Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin Aldrin, with Neil Armstrong reflected in visor (source: NASA)

On 20 July, it will have been exactly 50 years since mankind first set foot on the moon: "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind".
What did that step mean for science? Four experts from Utrecht University look back on the historic event and look ahead to the future of space exploration. 

NASA is releasing new moon samples. It’s going to be spectacular!
profile photo Inge Loes ten Kate

“As a child, I thought that men walking on the moon was a normal, everyday occurrence. Only now that I’m a scientist myself do I understand how momentous it was. That first step was also important for my own field of scientific research. At the moment, the moon is the only astronomical body in our solar system from which we have samples from a precise known location. That means we can actually say something about that specific spot on the moon. At the time, NASA made several samples available to scientists, but they also kept some of the samples behind lock and key with the idea that future technological developments would make the samples even more valuable to science. And it’s true that we can do so much more today than we could back then. To commemorate the 50th anniversary, NASA is releasing those samples for research. It’s going to be spectacular”, says planetary scientist and astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate.
Her research focuses on the creation of life and the role planets play in it. To that end, she studies how meteorites decay, how minerals react to one another on the planets’ surface, and how planets develop over time. Inge Loes ten Kate will also be featured in the upcoming television programme De maanlanding: 50 jaar na de eerste stap, 20 July at 20:30 on NPO1.  

It seems like it might be possible to have a permanent human colony on the moon within just a few years.

A giant leap for mankind. It definitely was. But it’s unfortunate that since then, mankind has spent fifty years hesitating to take the next step. The Americans won the race to the moon with flying colours, but as the political climate shifted people lost their enthusiasm to push on in the field of space exploration. Only now are people starting to realise that the moon is an ideal launchpad for further manned missions to planets and planetoids. Now it seems like it might be possible to have a permanent human colony on the moon within just a few years. What the Americans achieved in 1969 was difficult and risky. Today, safety and comfort have a much higher priority, and otherwise it’s not worth the trouble. Only once we know how to create an entire ecosystem of plants, animals, and humans in a space colony can we begin thinking about taking the next giant leap: Mars? Other moons and dwarf planets?”, says Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics and Nobel Prize winner Gerard ’t Hooft. ’t Hooft served as ambassador for the Mars One Project. His current research concentrates on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and quantum gravitation, and the role that black holes play in it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a human set foot on Mars within the next few decades!
profile photo Tjalling de Haas

“A moon landing today would still speak to the imagination, but fifty years ago it was a technological miracle. Without a doubt, the moon landing paved the way for all of the space exploration that followed, including many unmanned missions to the planet Mars. Around two years after the moon landing, humans put the first satellite into Mars orbit. Since then, a total of fourteen satellites have been put into orbit around Mars, six of which are still in operation. Although no humans have been to Mars yet, four robots have been sent there, the first of which arrived in 1997. The data collected by the satellites is invaluable, and have taught us much about the history of Mars, the presence of water, and the potential for life on the red planet. One of the biggest technological and scientific challenges is a manned mission to Mars, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a human set foot on Mars within the next few decades!”, says geomorphologist Tjalling de Haas. He conducts research into debris flows on Earth, and the geological formations on Mars that were probably formed by debris flows, which indicates that liquid water must have been present on the surface of Mars at some point.

Apollo 11 was a milestone in the development of computer- and software technology.
profile photo Jan van Leeuwen

“Early in the Apollo programme, people realised controlling the space capsule and the moon lander would be too complicated to do by hand. So in 1965, MIT developed a special computer for it, called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Standard computers at the time were still bulky and heavy, but the design of the AGC proved that they could be built differently. It was the first computer to use the technology of integrated circuits, which kept the dimensions and weight (still 32 kilogrammes) within the limits of what Apollo could carry. That makes the AGC one of the first developments in the exponential miniaturisation of processors and memory that led to our devices and smartphones today.
The programming of the guidance and navigation methods for Apollo also required innovations to make the software compact and controllable. In order to make them fail-safe, special error detection and recovery methods were needed to allow the astronauts to intervene if necessary – which was indeed the case during the moon landing in 1969. The Apollo moon landing was only a success thanks to the innovations that had taken place in computer production and software engineering, which made it an important milestone in the history of computer science”, explains Professor Emeritus of Computer Science Jan van Leeuwen.