A common childhood dream is that of becoming an astronaut and exploring the distant realms of space, a place far from the reach of common human grasp. On July 16th, 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched Apollo 11 — the mission that would prove those dreams possible.
40 years later, Cornell’s department of astronomy remembered the excitement of the events that occurred and the scientific discoveries that were made. The events included a discussion panel lead by some of Cornell’s distinguished astronomy professors and activities for kids and families after the talk.
The panelists recalled and revered the scientific importance of the Apollo mission. In addition to taking the historic steps for mankind, the crew brought back samples that they hoped would shed light on the origins of the moon and the Earth, as well as the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Thomas Gold (1920-2004), founder of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell, became one of the principal investigators of the lunar material collected by the Apollo 11 mission, bringing Apollo’s research directly to the university.
Elizabeth Bilson, a retired member of the department of astronomy, participated in the research on the moon rocks by Thomas Gold and chemical analyst, George Morrison. “We got samples which were just a few grams each and we had to determine the optical reflectivity of the samples, the particle size distribution of the dust and some of the electrical properties,” Bilson said. “Morrison’s group determined some 67 elements in the dust and rock samples and they came to the conclusion that the samples were very similar to the salty crust on Earth, with some signs of significant differences in the volatile elements.”
The scientific research conducted on the samples brought back by Apollo 11 refuted previous theories of the moon’s formation and provided evidence for the theory that is most widely accepted today, the Giant Impact Hypothesis.
The Giant Impact hypothesis postulates that a Mars-sized body collided with Earth while the planet was still forming, sending detached material — which would eventually become the moon — into orbit. This hypothesis accounts for the elemental similarities between the moon and Earth.
Along with the scientific research came the opportunity for engineering research on the Lunar Module’s ability to withstand lunar conditions. Dr. Steven Squyres, astronomy, explained that “a big part of their job wasn’t science; it was actually engineering. The lunar module had flown a couple times before but this was the only time it had landed. So one of their biggest jobs, which took up a lot of their time, was just doing a thorough inspection of the Lunar Module to see if anything had happened to it once it had interacted with the lunar rocks.”
Space scientists hope to analyze all the physical, chemical and potentially biological components of the planets, including the perilous aspects of their topography like volcanoes, ice sheets and craters. Meanwhile, engineers are searching for potential outpost locations that would be appropriate for long-term human inhabitance.
Despite financial, political and technical constraints, NASA intends to continue lunar exploration efforts.
NASA intends to launch the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) in 2011 in order to analyze the gravitational field of the Earth’s moon in great detail. By 2012, NASA plans to launch their Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer in order to observe the lunar atmosphere before any further human disturbances occur.
Cornell is also actively involved in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, which investigates the past existence of life on the red planet by studying signs of its ancient water resources.
NASA’s most distant effort, the Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission, was launched in January of 2006 and is scheduled to land in July of 2015.
But Apollo’s 40th anniversary speaks to the work still needed as much as it speaks to astronomy’s progress since 1969. As John F. Kennedy said in 1962, “despite the fact that this nation's own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole … the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.”