The moon landing and big science

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moon landing

Photo: NASA
Buzz Aldrin assembles a seismic experiment on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Much scientific knowledge was gained from the moon landings—and much continues to be gained from less flashy scientific exploration.

John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American

One of my friends told me that he was conceived the night the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility. The story is, his parents lost interest in the activity on the TV screen and instead became active with one another. I remember watching it myself, 9 years old, and the seeming eternity that transpired before the ghostly image of Armstrong descending the ladder appeared on our black-and-white tube. The anticipation for the moon landing had built in my little-boy mind for years. We talked about John Glenn and knew about orbiting the earth. Rockets were the coolest thing imaginable, and we had our own vinegar-baking soda variants from chemistry sets, and later built models from kits bought at the hardware store and ignited by nichrome wire hooked up to Dad’s car battery.

But the moon landing was, for the most of us, the slowest of slow TV. More than six hours elapsed between landing and “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Plus, the image we saw was a long way from clear. It turns out we were watching by way of a camera pointed at a screen on earth; the original signal from the moon was in a format that was not viewable on normal televisions.

Some of us followed TV broadcasts of subsequent moon landings, and the images got much better, and the action higher, culminating in astronauts getting to drive around in little dune-buggies that kicked up dust that mysteriously settled immediately behind the wheels, having no atmosphere in which to hang and drift.

The scientific objectives of the moon mission were not in the forefront of my awareness. In fact, the main questions I remember are, “Can it be done?” and, “Can we do it before the USSR?” But the underlying assumption was that someday, and probably before the year 2001, we would inhabit the moon, eventually Mars, then spread to the asteroid belt, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. The “giant leap” would itself be the first small step in our expansion into the various celestial bodies of our solar system, with an eye toward neighboring stars. Scientific discoveries and technological advancements would accrete, one upon another, forming a fundament for revolutionary and awe-inspiring breakthroughs in humankind’s understanding of the nature of our universe.

Actually, all this has happened, and is now happening, albeit without lunar colonies or a mission to send people to Mars (so far). The Apollo missions, plus probes, answered basic questions regarding the composition of the moon, such as whether it has water (yes) or oil (no). The moon was likely born out of a collision that occurred early in the history of the earth, as witnessed by the near identity of isotopic signatures found in rocks from the moon compared with earth (in contrast to isotopic signatures of meteors and Mars rocks). The activities of NASA and the other space agencies of the world have built a huge body of knowledge through data-gathering missions of great ambition and reward.

The International Space Station, its initial component launched by the Russian agency Roscosmos, has been in earth orbit since 1999 and it is still being built upon and supported by NASA, JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada). The ISS has provided an enormous wealth of information about our own planet and is the foundation for any serious ambition for human habitation in space.

Many missions have also contributed since the start of space activities. The Hubble telescope has given us images of the “Pillars of Creation,” an area of space suggesting the genesis of stars, some 6,500 light years out in the galaxy. A recent fly-by of Pluto gave us our first high-resolution images of its surface. (Consider now the discrepancy in the size of celestial objects. Pluto is “only” 4.5 hours from earth at the speed of light, yet Hubble, able to deliver amazing images of objects many thousand times farther away, never got a good picture of Pluto—it is just a cosmic spec by comparison). NASA also did an amazing mission to Jupiter that included deep dives toward the atmosphere and eventual entry and disintegration in the planet’s gravity and radiation, sending data back to earth all the way. The Mars rovers, the landing on a comet—all these projects represent seemingly impossible technological challenges requiring the application of the best of our best and beckoning for invention and discovery at every turn.

Space exploration is a testament to the power of big science—the synergy of intellectual and material resources that can only be mustered through cooperation on a grand scale. By contrast, consider the trope that the Wright brothers got off the ground independently. There is truth to this idea, since they did solve particular problems with insightful experiments using really basic equipment (a bicycle wheel mounted on bicycle handlebars to test aerodynamic properties of different shapes). But their contribution was made on the background of enthusiasm for flight happening the world around. They benefited from a plethora of examples to discard or build upon.

Individual insight and problem solving are always necessary, but not sufficient, in summoning the “better angels of our nature” to sing in unison around a project like the moon shot. Sure, things like our personal computers and smart phones were conjured in the spirit of selling “goodies” to consumers. These things, much like the telephone and automobile before, have changed the way people live on this planet. Yet even these things live within the “public” world of our electrical grid and highway system.

Trips to the moon don’t make money and are not likely to do so anytime soon, so market forces won’t cause them to come into being. Neither did cancer treatments arise from market forces, although they now make a lot of money for their commercial manufacturers (read The Emperor of All Maladies to learn how individual enthusiasts like Mary Lasker and Sydney Farber influenced the U.S. Congress to create institutions and fund large-scale screening to discover agents to treat leukemia and other cancers). The Human Genome Project was initiated by, funded by, and matured under the National Institute of Health (Craig Venter’s Celera Genomics notwithstanding). It now “lives” under the National Library of Medicine webpages and is added to continuously as new species and individual genomes are sequenced and their data collated, compared, and cross-referenced to cellular functions, diseases, and drugs. The policies that created and maintain these institutions and their descendent resources are the infrastructure on which revolutionary treatments—such as Zelobraf for melanoma and the “immunotherapeutic” agent Yervoy—were conceived. So far, no cancer treatment or orbiter has come out of a bicycle-shop setting.

Although the drama of big science is replete with personal and institutional triumphs and failures, big science often goes unnoticed and under-appreciated by the general public. But the drama continues, and tantalizing bits make it to the foreground of public awareness, sometimes packaged as fiction. For example, The Expanse is a television series that paints a detailed picture of a solar system inhabited and exploited by humans. The advent of computer-generated imagery in film has enabled depictions of space in ever-more realistic and exciting ways. Details visualized in The Expanse did live in the fiction of the Apollo era, but were seldom visualized on film (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is a notable exception). In 1969, one of the most ambitious special effects ever created in film was the “skeleton scene” from Jason and the Argonauts. Most of the space movies were worse than this, featuring ray guns, theremin soundtracks, and plastic junk glued to people’s faces.

Perhaps the entertainment value of major milestones in science will never be front and center for the public. My friend can thank the low-production quality and extended timeline of the Apollo 11 broadcast for having afforded an opportunity for his creation. But let’s keep sharing grand visions of possibility with each other and work toward a world beyond our individual imagination.

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied Biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech start up at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.

This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.