Neil Armstrong thought he had a 50–50 shot at pulling it off. “There are so many unknowns,” the first man to set foot on the moon said in a 2011 interview with an Australian accounting firm. “There was a big chance that there was something in there we didn’t understand properly and we [would have] to abort and come back to Earth without landing.” That he, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins—with the help of thousands of NASA engineers, scientists and mission controllers on Earth—did pull off a moon landing remains one of humanity’s most incredible achievements.
Consider that 50 years ago this month a 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket weighing as much as 400 elephants climbed away from Earth atop an explosion more powerful than the output of 85 Hoover Dams. Once in space, the astronauts escaped Earth orbit, traveled to lunar orbit, then undocked part of their spacecraft and steered it down for a soft impact on an alien land. Perhaps even more impressive, after taking a walk around, they climbed back in their lunar lander, launched off the surface of another planetary body (another first), rejoined the command module orbiting roughly 60 miles above the lunar surface, and then flew back to Earth, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean two days later.
After that heady feat, dreamers worldwide imagined it would be only a hop, skip and jump to colonies on the moon and vacations on Mars. Yet no human has been back to the lunar surface since the last Apollo astronaut left it in 1972, and plans to put people on Mars or anywhere else in the solar system are barely more defined than they were back then. It seems that every subsequent president promises to send another crew to the moon, but by now those calls have begun to sound like fanciful, unfeasible optimism. When Vice President Mike Pence announced in March that the Trump administration wants to land astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024, the public reaction was incredulity. But the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 reminds us that this laughably ambitious goal has in fact already been proved doable—on a short deadline, at a time when computers were the size of rooms, the U.S. was losing the war in Vietnam, women were marching in the streets for equality, and African-Americans were fighting, often sacrificing their lives, for the right to be treated as full human beings.
People often remember the time of the moon landing as one of the country’s finest moments, an age when things were simpler, better, more hopeful. Yet Apollo 11 was not the embodiment of a grand era—it was a testament to the fact that we can do great things in terrible times. That even when we are struggling, when our country is divided and our world is scary, we should chase big dreams. Apollo 11 showed us, just when we needed it, the best of humanity. Now, when our planet is facing similar strife, we could really use another moon shot, whether we go back to the moon or not.
Modern satellite imagery and 3-D modeling give us a new view of how Apollo 11 played out.
A new race could be heating up to claim valuable moon terrain amid uncertain laws.
All 122 attempts, visualized.
An entirely new class of astronomical object—a synestia—may be the key to solving the lingering mysteries of lunar origin.
The lunar rocks brought home by Apollo astronauts reshaped our understanding of the moon and the entire solar system. Gathering more of them is one of the most important reasons to go back.
Humanity first went to the moon to make a point. Now it’s time to overcome rivalries and pitch in together.