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That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Half a century has passed since these monumental words echoed across the television sets, not just in the United States, but across the world. It was the announcement of humankind, that as a species, it had freed itself from being bounded to its home planet, Earth. Remarkably, this feat on the 20th July 1969 came only 66 years after two bicycle shop owners turned inventors, the Wright Brothers showed the world that the sky was not just limited to those with wings.

The quest to reach the moon was sparked partly by human explorative ingenuity and partly by the sheer fear of losing the space battle in the Cold War Era. The 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy in 1961 announced, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth…We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...

Setting a vision is one thing, but accomplishing the mission is an entirely different story. At this point in 1961, NASA of the United States was clearly standing second to the Soviet Space Mission under renowned space scientist Sergai Korolev.

NASA was one year behind in sending a satellite to space and a month behind Soviets in sending the first man to space. The Soviets were leading Americans in propulsion technology and they had a better fleet of cosmonauts compared to American astronauts.

But Moon was a different deal.

NASA had three critical advantages in this mission over the Soviets. First, the American economy was getting much stronger than Soviets and hence, they were in a better position to fund space exploration of this scale.

Second, the Moon landing needed a much bigger rocket system compared to the spacewalks done in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A typical LEO is about 2,000 km while the moon journey was 384, 400 km one side. Hence, both Americans and Soviets had to innovate from scratch to produce such powerful engines. Interestingly, the Americans had a treasure box acquired in 1945. Just after the Second World War, in the small city of Reutte in Austria, a German cyclist came to a group of American soldiers and asked them to accept his brother’s surrender. “My brother designed the V-2 rockets (missiles)” he cried to the American soldiers. “Accept his surrender” he added.

Unbelievably, this ordinary-looking cyclist’s brother, Wernher Von Braun, had designed the world’s first missile, the V-2 which had rained havoc on the city of London and around in the last phase of the Second World War. For obvious reasons, Von Braun was a hated figure among the victorious allies and hence he was sent into obscurity in the United States. A decade and a half later, when Americans shortlisted the best brains to design the moon rocket, Von Braun’s name emerged the clear leader. He, a former prisoner of war, was engaged in the Apollo mission specifically to design the Saturn V rocket system.

Saturn V was a three-stage rocket which was as tall as about a 36-story building and weighed 2.8 million kilograms, as much as 1,800 cars.  Till date, this is the heaviest, tallest and the most powerful rocket ever built. So, it was a widely hated, enemy scientist, who played one of the biggest roles in putting humanity beyond our planet. Humankind’s greatest achievement in space exploration to date came as a result of competition between two enemy countries and was won by a collaboration of two enemy countries. The message was clear – Cosmos in its totality goes far beyond the boundaries of any nation.

Before sending a human to the lunar surface, it was very important for NASA to understand the territory they had to land on. Hence, in 1966-67, NASA launched the Lunar Orbiter Program and sent five spacecraft to click photographs of the surface of the Moon. All the spacecraft achieved their mission objectives and died a hero’s death by crashing on the lunar surface to avoid accidents with the future spacecraft. Then came the Apollo program which set several milestones in the history of human spaceflight and is the only mission as of now which has sent humans beyond LEO.

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off on Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on a journey to the moon and back. The Apollo spacecraft had three parts. First, a command module (CM) called Columbia, which was the only part that returned back to Earth and had a cabin for the three crewmen. The second was a service module (SM) that assisted the CM with water, oxygen, fuel and electrical power. The third was a lunar module (LM) called Eagle which had to perform two functions: land the astronauts to the lunar surface (descent stage) and lift off the astronauts back to lunar orbit (ascent stage).

After reaching space, the astronauts separated themselves from the rocket and traveled for three days to reach the lunar orbit. Then, Armstrong and Aldrin moved into Eagle and landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on the lunar surface. They spent about 21 hours on the moon’s surface and collected 21.5 kg of moon rocks to bring back to the Earth. Astronauts then used the ascent stage of the lander to lift off from the lunar surface and rejoin Collins who was orbiting the moon in the Columbia. This was the most crucial step of the journey because the gravity on the lunar surface is one-sixth of that on the Earth. And back in those days, there was no way to test the instruments here on the Earth. In other words, we were able to land on the Moon because of calculations done on paper mostly by a human brain. The lunar landing also teaches us an important lesson on the power of sheer grit of human brain.

They returned to the Earth and splashed straight into the Pacific Ocean after spending over eight days in space. So, from the Sea of Tranquillity to the Pacific Ocean, this was the history’s most important voyage.

Despite being pitiful as compared to today’s standards, computers did play a role in this mission. The computer which guided humans across over 350,000 km of space from Earth to the Moon and back to the Earth operated at the frequency of 0.043MHz and had 64k byte memory. To put this in perspective, it was less equipped than even today’s toaster! Also, several computers were employed at the Goddard Space Flight Center (Maryland, USA) to establish communication between the Earth and the lunar lander. Each computer was the size of a car and could perform several hundred thousand additions operation per second. In other words, the smartphone in your pocket is over 30,000 times faster than the best Apollo era computers.

Space is a very dangerous domain. Prior to humans, several organisms including fruit flies, monkeys, mice, dogs and rabbits have lost their lives to make way for human spaceflight but no living being had ever gone to the Moon.

The case of Apollo 11 was no different; it was no honeymoon trip.

Both the astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin knew that there was only a 50% chance that they would return back safely to the Earth. Not only astronauts, in fact, but their own government also had a strong expectation that these astronauts will never return. The preparation for their failure was so well done that the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon had prepared an alternative speech which he never had to deliver (thankfully). That speech read, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

While Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins came back home as heroes and today we celebrate 50 years since mankind first stepped on the moon, it is also important to draw some light on the past missions and their tragic failures which preceded this success. The tall edifice of our quest in space lies on a foundation of sacrifices of some of the most brilliant minds humanity has ever seen. These minds range across nationalities, geographies and time.

It perhaps starts at the times of Bruno, a medieval Italian philosopher, who was burnt at the stake in 16th century for saying that, contrary to what the Bible pronounced Earth was not the center of the universe. Then, about half a century later, the great Galileo suffered lifetime imprisonment in his own house for calling this “myth a myth” which wasn’t again acceptable to the Vatican. Even the story of Apollo 1 which was the first manned Apollo flight launched in 1967, three years prior to Apollo 11 was tragic. During the pre-launch preparations on Earth itself, the Apollo capsule caught fire burning the entire CM. All the three most brilliant astronauts on board perished despite all the efforts of the ground crew. This list also includes the Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov who braved to go up in the space on still stuttering & nascent technology but due to a mechanical failure ended up being burnt to his death in high skies and left behind only in few unidentifiable remains. Apollo 11 is not just about “… one small step for [a] man …” success story rather a reward which humanity got after sacrificing some of the finest men and women.

Of course, I spoke of a third advantage which NASA had. This came in the form of an unfortunate accident. In January 1966, the founder of the Soviet Space Program, Sergai Korolev, unexpectedly died suffering from advanced cancer. This loss broke the knees of not just the Soviet moon mission, but their entire space industry came to a screeching halt. Till the end of the Soviet Union itself, in 1991, they could never recover their former space glory – and hence of the 12 men who walked on our nearest satellite – all are Americans.

50 years in posterity, one sees how the events in the lives of three men insurmountably shaped our mission to the moon. One wonders, in an alternative history. What if Kennedy never gave the grand vision to aim the moon? What if Korolev never died so suddenly? And, what if, simply Magnus Von Braun chose to peddle in a different direction and surrendered to the Soviets instead of the Americans after the Second World War?

As published on July 20, 2019 in India Today.

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