“Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969, AD we came in peace for all mankind,” read the plaque that was fixed to the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle, on this day, 40 years ago. The Apollo project has been billed as ‘man’s greatest technological achievement’, but it may also have been “man’s greatest adventure” believes Dr Gordon Caruana-Dingli who chairs the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Malta Committee.
Further still, the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrates the four hundred year anniversary since Galileo Galilei turned his telescope towards the night sky. He was the first to observe our moon in detail and some of his maps have been preserved. The year 2009 is also the fiftieth anniversary of the first unmanned lunar landing by the Russian Luna 2.
Meanwhile, Malta is home to the oldest free standing stone structures in the world which are thousands of years old. It is claimed that these temples were aligned to the solstice, and so there has been a strong astronomical tradition in Malta since antiquity.
During the early meetings of the Malta committee Dr Caruana Dingli, a surgeon by profession who has been interested in astronautics for 40 years, proposed that Malta should co-ordinate an international project for the IYA 2009. Mr Leonard Ellul Mercer, a keen astrophotographer, had long wished to produce an astronomy image involving various countries and after discussions, they came up with the idea of forming an image of the moon composed of images taken by countries all over the world. Mr Ellul Mercer then divided an image of the moon into numbered segments and all IYA 2009 single points of contact with an email address were invited to take part.
“The response was overwhelming with 40 countries submitting images from all five continents, one country for every year that has passed since Apollo 11 landed on the moon,” they said enthusiastically.
Explaining the images included, they spoke of the image from the European Union’s Smart-1 spacecraft. Most of the photos were taken during the May or June full moons of 2009 but some were older and the Italian contribution is a 400-year-old sketch by Galileo Galilei.
These images were then painstakingly processed and pasted as a collage on the background of a full moon image by Mr Ellul Mercer. He then went ahead with producing an audiovisual production of the project.
‘The Moon for All Mankind’ was the inspiration and subsequently the main theme for the project.
In his 1960 electoral campaign John F Kennedy had called space “our great new frontier”. He later challenged Congress and the American people to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. NASA then embarked on the Mercury and Gemini programmes. These were single and two man crafts respectively and important to demonstrate various techniques needed to go to the moon e.g. docking two spaceships together, spacewalks and experience in navigation. Unmanned probes were sent to the moon and other planets. In the meantime NASA began planning for the Apollo programme. The technology for sending a man to the moon was not available and NASA invented it.
But Apollo was not driven by technology. It was about imagination, vision and adventure. Man went to the moon with very limited technology compared to what we have today. What mattered then was the collective dream of the country to do it. But most of all it was the next step in human exploration that had to be made, Dr Caruana-Dingli believes.
On 16 July 1969 the astronauts were woken up early. They had a big breakfast, wore their spacesuits and were taken to a massive rocket on the launch pad. Watched by over a million people who had gathered at Cape Kennedy the rocket took off on time riding on a tail of fire and the noise of a sonic boom. Apollo 11 then orbited the earth, a rendezvous was performed and it arrived at the moon on 19 July, 1969. As the spacecraft orbited behind the moon a rocket-burn was made to successfully enter moon orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module, separated from the command module and started their descent to the moon. The lunar module was called “Eagle” and its onboard computer was designed to land it on the moon.
Early in the morning of 20 July, 1969 Eagle was approaching the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. The computer gave an overload alarm but ground control gave the go-ahead for the descent. During the last few hundred feet of descent Armstrong noted that they were heading for a crater full of dangerous boulders. He calmly took manual control and landed in a safe area with only a few seconds of fuel to spare. Armstrong then said: “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed”, to which mission control replied: “Roger tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” Man had landed on the moon.
There is no doubt that Apollo was the greatest project for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In the 1970s and 1980s NASA languished after severe budget cuts. While the Space Shuttle was a success, NASA never managed to keep the same pace after Apollo and the promised Mars landings have not yet materialised, although there were successful unmanned missions like Pioneer, Voyager and Viking and the Mars rovers.
Although Dr Caruana-Dingli pointed out that a manned landing on Mars was inevitable in the future nobody can predict when it can happen. In the immediate future NASA is busy assembling the International Space Station and it is planning a return to the moon. While today’s technology is far superior to that of the 1960s Dr Caruana-Dingli wonders whether there is the motivation and the money for this to happen.
“Maybe it will only happen if there is another space race. And the next man on the moon might well be Chinese,” he said.
On Tuesday and Wednesday the IYA 2009 committee will be commemorating Apollo 11 at the St James cinema in Valletta, with the co-operation of the US embassy. The ‘We choose to go to the Moon’ programme includes a panel discussion and films. On Friday evening, Dr Caruana-Dingli will be giving a talk entitled ‘The Space Race – US/Russian Missions to the Moon’ at the Sanctuary Museum in Zabbar at 7.30pm.
A stamp set commemorating Galileo, Apollo 11 and Lassell’s famous telescope in Malta was also issued.
Details of all activities are available on the website: