The 1969 Moon landing may seem like a lifetime ago, however scientists are still reaping the rewards of humanity’s greatest achievement in exploration. Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on another celestial body 50 years ago on the 21st July, followed by Buzz Aldrin and only 10 others in the succeeding three years. Although short lived, these missions gave scientists some of the most valuable data to date, writes Hannah Banyard, Astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich
Across the entire Apollo program, astronauts spent a combined 12.5 days on the lunar surface collecting samples and taking measurements. A total of 382kg of rocks and soil were returned to Earth by the missions – some of which are currently on display at The Moon exhibition at National Maritime Museum – and each year NASA reallocate the samples to different scientific institutions around the world to be studied. Improvements in technology means new information is still being extracted from samples that have already been subject to much scientific investigation.
The research derived from these has not only revolutionised our understanding of lunar science but also planetary science, including the evolution of the Solar System. Evidence has been uncovered to support the theory that a Mars-sized planet impacted an early Earth and the debris this created combined to form our moon. Sample analysis has allowed scientists to calibrate crater counting – a method used to determine the age of surfaces in the Solar System. Drilled samples down to a depth of two metres provided a celestial timeline for scientists, recording events such as solar wind intensity and periods of bombardment, giving clues to events that helped shape the Solar System.
As NASA prepares to send humans back to the Moon by 2024, one key question posed is ‘is it worth it?’. If the thousands of scientific papers which make use of Apollo data are not enough, consider the human impact. The Apollo missions were a huge expense but it is important to remember this money was not wasted. Apollo advanced science, drove technological innovation, inspired younger generations to become scientists and brought humanity together. Born out of the competition of two superpowers, the Apollo 11 astronauts expected other countries to congratulate the Americans on their achievement. However, pilot of the command module Michael Collins spoke of the world tour after they had returned to Earth and the greetings they received of “we did it!” around the globe. The moon landings were an incredible feat, providing invaluable data, the decision to return is imperative to increasing scientific knowledge and ultimately understanding humanity’s place in the Universe.
The Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum is on until 5 January 2020
Image: Astronaut Edwin Aldrin walks on lunar surface near leg of Lunar Module – Courtesy NASA