One Small Step

By Mark Trodden | July 20, 2009 1:21 pm

Forty years ago today Neil Armstrong did what no other member of our species had ever done before when he stepped from the ladder of the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon.


This was an outstanding achievement, by any measure, and one that has become emblematic of what we are capable of. I couldn’t possibly do justice to what it must have meant to people at the time – I was just a few months old when this took place – but there are wonderful accounts all over the web, and I’ve been enjoying reading almost all of them. I’m sure I would have had the same emotions on that day if I hadn’t been busy drooling, filling my diaper, and being forced to take a nap.

Along with these initial reactions to the event, I’ve also been reading other accounts of how the directions of people’s lives were driven by the moon landing. These are also fascinating, and I have been particularly interested by scientists who feel that it was this event that helped fuel their interest in science, because my own experience was somewhat different.

Although I had a healthy interest in science (as well as a lot of other subjects) from an early age, I have never felt that the space landings had an effect on it. I was certainly enthralled by the space program, read magazines about it, and the newspapers, and watched anything that was shown on television about it. I thought about being an astronaut, and fantasized about the excitement of traveling to other planets and beyond. Star Trek presumably had a hand in all this. But what grabbed me was the exploration, and the adventure. Not the science.

My current view is that while there may be a reasonable argument for the manned space program on the basis of exploration (and I find the idea exciting myself), it is hard to make a scientific argument for it. I often hear the argument that the space program is nevertheless useful to science because it inspires people to become scientists, or at least to be interested in science. This must be true at some level, but I’ve never found it a compelling argument. Nevertheless, this isn’t the point I’m trying to support with my comments above – clearly many scientists have felt inspired to be scientists by manned space travel. It just happens that I wasn’t one of them.

In any case, having been suitably serious, awed and humbled by the heroic endeavors of NASA, Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and those who followed them, I thought I’d leave you with something a little lighter. Here’s British transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard’s (NSFW, due to some naughty language) take on how the astronauts could have made the moon landing even more entertaining.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Space
  • Lab Lemming

    While the Apollo program may not have been justifiable as a scientific project, the science that resulted from it was outstanding.

  • Rigby

    Yeah, we could have never survived without teflon and velco.

  • Galen

    The Apollo 11 astronauts left an array of retroreflectors on the lunar surface for the purpose of laser ranging; i.e. a laser beam is sent from an Earth observatory, bounced off the reflectors and the travel time for the round trip is recorded. The mirrors are still there today and researchers use them to monitor the distance between the Earth and the Moon, the value of the gravitational constant etc. This experiment is often used to flummox conspiracy theorists who claim the Apollo 11 lunar landing was a hoax. It strikes me that detecting photons that have bounced off an object is tantamount to “seeing.” Does anyone know if it’s possible to integrate the accumulated data from a series of laser ranging experiments to obtain an “image” of the retroreflector array?

  • Mike Licht

    After 40 years, one thing is clear: the future is not what it used to be.


  • tacitus


    This experiment is often used to flummox conspiracy theorists who claim the Apollo 11 lunar landing was a hoax.

    You severely underestimate the determination of conspiracy theorists to deny the undeniable.

    AFAIK, no moon hoaxer argues that we have never launched probes into space — e.g. they are happy to agree that Spirit and Opportunity are busy tootling around Mars at the moment (even if they are being deliberately steered away from the extraterrestrial ruins that are supposedly scattered all over the planet!). So mirrors on the Moon is not much of an issue for them, since the majority of them are quite happy to believe that we (or the USSR) sent unmanned probes to the Moon and placed the mirrors there for scientists to use in later experiments.

  • Count Iblis

    The moon landing was just one move in the Cold War. As such it did have a positive influence on science, because when the Soviets launched Sputnik the US, motivated to outperform the Soviets, realized that their educational system was far worse than that of the Soviet Union. Unless the educational system was imporoved, they were not going to have the highly qualified scientists to be able to outperform the Soviet Union.

    If we were to spend less on the military and more on space, say a third of the national income, science and technology would be stimulated a lot. Most of the money we spend on things other than food, rent, medicines is spend on wasteful activities anyway. So, a large part of the economy is devoted to such useless activities. If we were to spend a sizeable fraction of the national income to build bases on the Moon and on Mars, then that would create a lot of jobs for scientists and engineers for a long time. That then means that children in school would be motivated to study science and engineering.

    It would also be good for the environment, because people will have less money to spend, so there will be less CO2 emissions. Also if it is paid for by cutting back on the Pentagon’s budget, because the US military uses a huge amount of oil.

  • Jason Dick

    This last part I don’t buy, Count Iblis:

    It would also be good for the environment, because people will have less money to spend, so there will be less CO2 emissions.

    In your scenario, people would be spending on science instead of war. The same overall amount of economic activity would ensue, and thus the same general level of CO2 emission. One can’t really change CO2 emission by much just by changing what is produced. To change CO2 emission we have to change where we get the energy that drives our economy. Conservation helps too, of course.

  • RCHughes

    My current view is that while there may be a reasonable argument for the manned space program on the basis of exploration (and I find the idea exciting myself), it is hard to make a scientific argument for it.

    This is only true if you define science very narrowly to mean planetary science. Even then it’s a a short-sighted position to hold.

    The most important reason to put people into space is to get better at doing it.

    Granted, today or even ten or twenty or fifty years from now you’ll get more value for your scientific buck with automated probes. But if you had the choice today of having a team of trained scientists with rovers, on-site laboratories and whatever other tools they’d need, living on Mars for years at a time or another round of probes scratching at the surface which would you choose? Without the cost and risk considerations it’s a no-brainer.

    If our goal is ultimately to have people in space then we better figure out how to do it. The only way to get better at putting people into space is to keep putting people into space.

    There seems to be a popular misconception that since we’ve been to the moon once, the technology is old hat, but we’ve got loads to learn about launch vehicles and landers and shuttles and rovers and habitats and self-sustaining life support and the long term effects of extraterrestrial environments on humans, animals and plants etc. etc. etc. After all we didn’t leap directly from papyrus coracles to the Santa Maria.

    Is it going to be expensive? Yes, but all that money is spent in the U.S. and compared to everything else we go into debt for at least our grandchildren can expect some return on this.

  • 减震器

    Tastes differ.

  • mat roberts

    I was born in 1969, and as a kid I though visiting Mars was just around the corner. As time has gone on, I have come to appreciate just what a huge engineering achievement putting a man on the moon was. And how far ahead of its time it was. I’m certain the 50th anniversary will pass without another man on the moon. It could well be towards the 100th anniversary before its done again.
    Awe aside though (they put a car up there!), I’m with you on manned space flight. I think unmanned probes are a much better way to do science.

  • Metre

    Whenever my teenaged son makes fun of how low tech my generation is, I remind him that men have walked on the moon in my lifetime, but not in his.

  • tony

    Do you know how the 40th anniversary of the moon landing makes me feel? Angry. Very very angry.

    I am angry at the generation who decided not to go back, and I am angrier at the generation that was inspired by it as children, and then used space to squeeze more channels of television into our living rooms. I am angry that we did this, and then basically that was it.

    I was born 5 years after the moon landing and in my life time no man has set foot on the moon. In all of the wonder of what we achieved is the stunning failure to make those trips mean anything other than a gold star on the cold war score board. It makes those trips meaningless and insufferable political stunts that just happened to have some value to some kooky scientists somewhere…

    We have to go back to the moon and beyond, but everyone just whines about it – Its too hard, too costly, too dangerous. Yes. it is all of those things. But it is the naysayers who want those things to stand in the way that are truly the greatest encumbrance to future achievements. Overcoming the stagnancy of the current generation in power, who doesnt do anything that doesnt provide instant gratification, that doesnt understand the concept of sacrifice and perseverance will possibly be even a greater achievement than putting a boot print in the red soil of Mars.

    Yes I am bitter. I pray that my one month old son wont be writing a similar message on a blog at the 50th or any future anniversary of this great travesty. I am not currently hopeful.

  • Hiranya

    It really bothers me that no one has left low Earth orbit in my lifetime. What someone wrote above is right – to imagine that one has to support either science or space exploration is to stay in the box in which we have been put. If a fraction of the cost of useless/destructive war machines around the world was put into either, there will be ample room for both.

  • Metre

    @tony #12

    Have a glass of wine, hug your child, enjoy life. What’s wrong with more and better TV channels and cell phone communications? What’s wrong with weather satellites and GPS? These by-products of the space age have improved our lives. What will make manned space exploration work is the potential to make money – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Columbus didn’t discover the new world out of scientific curiosity, he did it to find a shorter route to the markets and wealth of the Orient. The sooner investors can see the profit potential of space exploration, the sooner it will happen.

  • Jim Harrison

    I get the same melancholic feeling looking at Armstrong’s footprint as I do thinking about paleolithic grave sites where a handful of shells and beads have been left on the remains of a child. Both vestiges are protests against mortality. The fantasy of manned space flight is a counterfactual assertion of a cosmic destiny for our species just as funeral customs reflect the equally vain hope of personal survival. Unless we find some pretty fundamental loopholes in the limitations that physics puts on technology, we are never going to go to the stars. I assume we could put men on Mars at immense expense, but then I guess the Egyptians could have built a pyramid even larger than the pyramid of Cheops. Meanwhile, for the record, teflon was invented in the 1930s.

  • Count Iblis

    Jason, perhaps I’m wrong, but I would guess that the government spending x dollars employing many scientist who would be developing robots to explore Mars would lead to less CO2 emissions than if those same x dollars were to remain in the hands of the people (because of lower taxes).

    Jim, ancient Egypt developed from a simple civilization to a superpower because they diverted much of their economic output to build the pyramids. The pyramids themselves were useless, but the effort that went into building led to a more advanced bureacratic system.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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