January 27, 2023


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Could Apollo inspire us to solve humanity's greatest problems today?

Could Apollo inspire us to solve humanity’s greatest problems today?

  • Henrik Sis

    Author and Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute (PRIO) and Professor, Oslo nai Hoeskull

Lunar lander pilot Harrison Schmidt landed on the surface of the Moon on December 13, 1972. It was a geologist with field studies from Norway, the chroniclers wrote.

Each of the lunar excursions led to important scientific discoveries and inventions.

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50 years ago today, Apollo 17 left the surface of the Moon, the last manned mission to the Moon to date. Thus ended an almost unimaginable chapter in human history. Computer technology at that time was, in our view, very simple. The task was huge – and life-threatening: to send living people from the safe gravity of Earth to another celestial body and return them safely.

Could Apollo inspire us to solve humanity’s greatest problems today?

Columbus and Magellan in our time

A few days ago, we – father and daughter from Little Norway – stood at the commemoration of the end of the Apollo program and chatted passionately with Charlie Duke and Harrison Schmidt, two of only a dozen people to have ever walked on the moon.

We hear from Jerry Griffin and Milt Windler, two legendary “flight directors” who—among many other things—brought Apollo 13 home when an explosion stranded nearly three people in empty space.

And we reached out to shake hands with Fred Haise, the Apollo 13 lunar lander pilot. He never got to land on the moon, but he made sure that tragedy turned into a miraculous success.

It is an experience to meet these people. In many ways they are Columbus, Magellan, Cook – or Leif Ericsson, albeit without ambitions to subjugate other peoples and civilizations.

Most people know Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew. They carried out the first moon landing in July 1969.

Many people remember Apollo 13, if only because of the movie Tom Hanks starred in. It shows how the three astronauts returned home after the explosion, which disabled the spacecraft’s primary systems.

Some will recognize the first photo ever taken by a human view of the Earth from the Moon with the naked eye: “Earthrise” – taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by Bill Anders (later US Ambassador to Norway). But with these stories, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Cooperation during the Cold War

Every Apollo mission was great. After the tragic and fatal accident with Apollo 1 in January 1967, the program was rebuilt and made safer. At the same time, the deadline set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 was fast approaching: to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

On the heels of the unmanned test launches, the requisite crewed preparation missions for Apollo 7 through 10 came at a rapid pace. And then, after the legendary first moon landing, Apollo 12 to 17 followed. Each one brought important scientific discoveries and inventions.

Minerals brought home by lunar missions, and a series of experiments on the lunar surface, are still under intense study.

Let’s also not forget the last Apollo flight, in close and peaceful cooperation with the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War: the Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 – although it was a flight that was limited to going into Earth orbit.

The criticisms were harsh all the time, not least in the USA: This wasn’t worth the money, and the risk was too great. But if we want to understand more about our place in the universe and hopefully later travel to other planets and celestial bodies, then the exploration of the moon was and still is very important. Minerals brought home by lunar missions, and a series of experiments on the lunar surface, are still being studied intensely.

Crater named after Nansen

The highly complex project, which involved more than 400,000 people, gained its initial impetus from the political and military race with the Soviet Union.

What we easily forget is how much mutual admiration the two rivals had, and how the Moon project generated close and highly successful cooperation between the great powers, in the middle of the Cold War to the present day.

It is not inconceivable that space research specifically could create a new spirit of cooperation between the United States and Russia in the aftermath of the tragic war in Ukraine, given the deep and strong bonds — and interdependence — that research has created over 50 years.

Eugene A. Cernan on the Moon on December 11, 1972.

By the time Apollo 17 got around to it in 1972, much of the interest from the general public had died down. Scientifically, each flight has only become more important, and much can still be achieved. However, the last flights, 18 and 19, have long since been cancelled. And Richard Nixon had ensured that 17 people were postponed until after the presidential election, so that no possible incident would hinder his electoral success.

On the Apollo 17 flight, Harrison Schmidt was the lunar landing pilot, that is, one of the two people who actually landed on the moon. Schmidt was not originally a pilot. He was a geologist with field studies from Norway and the only geologist to have traveled to the moon.

When he was allowed to name one of the lunar craters, he named it Nansen, in honor of Norway. He found rocks showing volcanic activity on the moon at his young age. He became the second last to leave the lunar surface on December 14, 1972.

The last of them was Eugene Cernan. He understood the historical dimension and said before his ascent to the moon: “We leave the moon as we came, and as we will return – God willing – with peace and hope for all mankind.” For astronauts, the global peace dimension has always been important.

The speech that remained in the archive

Then the lunar probe took off from the lunar surface for the last time. A camera was left on the lunar rover and filmed everything. In the command module, Ron Evans was waiting, ready to greet his fellow astronauts.

In 1969, Richard Nixon prepared a speech to give in the event of the Apollo 11 moon landing Not She managed to take off from the Moon: “Fate has ordained that the people sent to the Moon in peace shall rest there in peace forever. … Every man who looks at the Moon in the coming nights will know that in some corner of this strange world, there will be something of us forever “. Fortunately, the letter remained in the archives.

In a few years, people will go to the Moon again, this time with a diversity of gender and skin color that astronauts lacked at the time. In any case, we have a lot to learn from them: Astronaut Neil Armstrong, who took his first steps on the moon. Artist Alan Bean, who created unique images based on his experiences in space. Reverend Jim Irwin, who found the ancient moon rock named Genesis, who himself found a new dimension to his spirituality. The list is long.

As we fight for a more peaceful world and to prevent the destruction of biodiversity and climate, there are certainly worse places to look for inspiration than the Apollo program.

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