Category Archives: Exploration & Discovery

Electromagnetism and the Modern Age

If one had to rate the greatest discoveries of all time, electricity would rank high on any list. Most of the modern world is powered by electricity. What would our lives be like without electricity? Just think of your own home; when the power goes out everything gets put on hold. Take people’s smart phones away and they don’t know what to do with themselves.

The application of electricity was the result of 3 centuries of investigation and experiments into the nature of electricity and magnetism. Understanding the relationship between the two forces and unifying them into a single force, called electromagnetism, proved to be a critical step. The unification of electricity and magnetism also established the existence of electromagnetic waves, the fundamental principle behind wireless technology.

Fascination and Curiosity

In the 1700s static electricity was a well-known phenomenon, and various devices were made to produce it. Electricity was poorly understood at first. Its main use was as an entertainment tool as it could create colorful sparks and move small objects. It was used in types of magic shows that were meant to delight crowds.

Over time the curious nature of electricity demanded an explanation, and a number of experimenters tried to find out. Where did electricity come from? Static electricity was observed to pass through people. Some animals were known to produce electric shocks. Therefore, was electricity intrinsic to life itself or were the living bodies a medium for carrying a fundamental force of nature?

In 1799, Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist and chemist showed that electricity could be generated artificially. He created the first battery by piling up metal plates, separated by cards dipped in dilute acid, and attaching both ends to wires. Metals have a unique quality where at the atomic level the electrons in the outer shells can be shared. Under the right conditions the electrons can flow from one atom to another. This produces an electric current.

The unit for measuring electric potential is named in Volta’s honor (the volt). Up until Volta’s pile, as it was called, electricity could only last for an instant. Now it could be stored in a battery, which opened the door for electricity to do useful work. But the road to inventing electrical technologies would be long and winding; the knowledge of electricity was still in its infancy.

The Insights of Faraday and Maxwell

Michael Faraday was a self-educated scientist, who is famous for his experiments with electricity and magnetism. His work would lead to unlocking the secrets of the two mysterious forces. Faraday picked up the work of Danish physicist, Hans Christian Orsted. In 1820, Orsted accidentally discovered that a current carrying wire caused a nearby magnetic needle to move. In other words, an electric field created a magnetic field.

Knowing that an electric current had an effect on magnets at a close distance; Faraday wondered if the experiment could be reversed. Could magnets generate electricity? Faraday set out to explore the relationship further, and in 1831 he discovered that a changing magnetic field caused an electric current in a nearby wire. The key insight was that electricity was produced when the magnetic field changed as it interacted with the wire. A stationary magnetic field and a wire did not induce a current. Therefore, a third variable was needed – motion. The motion of a magnetic field in relation to a wire generated the electricity.

This principle, known as electromagnetic induction, is responsible for powering all electric motors and generators. Electric power is generated by a changing magnetic field and its interaction with a coil of wire. The coil multiplies the amount of power generated, but operates under the same principle as Faraday’s experiment with a single wire.

Three decades later a Scottish physicist by the name of James Clerk Maxwell put the finishing touch on the unification of electricity and magnetism. By the time Maxwell came along it was well-established that there existed a connection between the two forces. The telegraph had been invented, the first long-distance communication device, which operated on the principle of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s great achievement came in 1862; he devised 4 simple equations that represented all the interactions between electricity and magnetism.

The original concept of two distinct forces was united under one theoretical framework. Electromagnetism became known as one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature recognized by modern physics; the other 3 being, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and gravity. In short, Faraday unified electricity and magnetism experimentally, and Maxwell unified them mathematically.

Fields, Waves and Light

With Maxwell’s equations came a new understanding of electromagnetism. Not only were the two forces unified, but the concepts of fields and waves would become extremely important. Modern physics would be transformed by the knowledge that energies could occupy regions of space and have noticeable effects. In This Explains Everything, physicist Lawrence Krauss writes:

“[Maxwell’s equations] established the physical reality of what was otherwise a figment of Faraday’s imagination: a field – that is, some quantity associated with every point in space and time.”

Maxwell realized that if a changing electric field created a magnetic field, and a changing magnetic field created an electric field, then the process would be continuous (a kind of chain reaction). The mutual interaction of electricity and magnetism would cause the field to oscillate. When an electromagnetic field oscillates it generates an electromagnetic wave, which has an independent existence and moves out from the source. Maxwell was able to calculate the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate. It tuned out it was precisely the speed of light. Krauss writes about Maxwell’s conclusion:

“Thus he discovered that light is indeed a wave – but a wave of electric and magnetic fields that moves through space at a precise speed…”

Maxwell’s discovery of a constant speed of light was the starting point for Einstein’s revision of space and time – the theory of special relativity. A decade later Einstein formulated the theory of general relativity. It was then followed by quantum theory, and the age of modern physics was in full swing.

A World Beyond Imagination

The scientists and inventors of the 1700s and 1800s could not have imagined the modern world that resulted from their work. Electricity and information technology could not have been possible if not for a complete understanding of electromagnetism. It was the start of something big, and step by step new discoveries and inventions pushed the boundaries of progress. Many innovators took part in the quest. Our world has become brighter, smaller and faster.

I know I am dating myself; however, I grew up watching a black and white television. At first the TV only aired 2 channels, of which the signal was received by an antenna in the attic. There was no remote control back then, so we had to manually turn the dial to change the channel. In addition, someone had to walk up to the attic and turn the antenna around. Eventually, we upgraded by adding a second antenna (each pointing in a different direction) and running wires to a switch besides the TV. I guess that was progress back then. Nowadays people complain if the Wi-Fi is slow.

I am amazed at all the electronic gadgets we have today, and all they can do. They work on principles that take advantage of things we can’t even see. How can electrons moving through wires light our homes and power computers? How can waves traveling through space carry information that can be converted to video and audio? Plus, most of the time, the signal is perfectly clear. When I consider that it took 3 centuries of inventions to get to this point, I am not going to get upset over a slow WiFi; I am just grateful it works at all.


References: Edge Foundation Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 335, 336.

In Our Time: Science, Michael Faraday, Dec. 24, 2015.

In Our Time: Science, The Invention of Radio, July 3, 2013.

In Our Time: Science, Maxwell, Oct 1, 2003

Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — Jim Al-Khalili BBC Horizon, Published on May 26, 2015.

Sequencing the Human Genome

On June 26, 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, geneticists Francis Collins and Craig Venter, announced the completion of the “first survey” of the entire human genome. The announcement was made in front of a large audience at the White House, which signified the importance of the milestone. Actually, the sequencing of the human genome was not yet complete; the presentation had been arranged as a compromise between two competing parties. On one side, the government-funded Human Genome Project, and on the other side a private company, Celera Genomics.

Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, Venter represented Celera Genomics. The truce had been arranged to end a race for a complete sequence of the human genome. Over a number of years both groups had made considerable progress and where getting close to the finish line. The joint statement would ensure that both sides would get credit upon completion; all the letters of human DNA would soon be spelled out. Francis Collins ended his talk with the following statement: “I am happy that today, the only race that we are talking about is the human race.”

The Controversy

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990. The task at hand was enormous. The human DNA code consisted of over 3 billion letters. It was estimated that it would take 50,000 person years of labor, at a cost of $3 billion. Collins compared the project’s scale to going to the moon or splitting the atom. As it turned out, two competing groups would go after the genome. They would differ in both technique and purpose.

Craig Venter

Celera Genomics was using a method of sequencing called shotgun. Criag Venter believed he could speed up the process by ignoring large parts of the genome located between genes. These sections encode for regulating genes, such as on and off switches, and some parts have no known function. Venter would essentially break up the genome, sequence the genes and then try to put the pieces back together.

Perhaps another motivation for the shotgun approach was to map individual genes in the hope to patent genes. Venter informed Collins his intention to seek patents for 300 genes that would serve as targets for drugs to treat diseases. In addition, the question whether the whole genome could be patented was uncharted territory.

Francis Collins

The Human Genome Project’s founding leader was James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA (the double helix in 1953). Watson had the credentials to get government funding for the project; however, he was outspoken and sometimes that got him in trouble. Watson was replaced by Francis Collins in 1993, which was more cautious and diplomatic, traits that would be needed to steer the project to completion. Collins’ group did not believe that individual genes or the genome should be up for patents. The genome belonged to everyone and should not be privatized for profit. Also, there was concern that Venter’s Shotgun method would reveal an incomplete genome, one that could not be put back together.

Scattered throughout the genome are DNA fingerprints. These are repeating patterns of code that are unique to each individual (except for identical twins), hence the term DNA fingerprints. The Human Genome Project would use DNA fingerprints to break up the task of sequencing. The DNA fingerprints stood out from the random code along the genome; this provided a natural break in which the genome could be divided up, and later put back together. The genome was divided into segments and sent to 16 labs around the world. Once each section was sequenced the genome could be placed back together

The controversy and the race for the genome increased the pace of the sequencing. In the end, both sides would publish papers on a sequenced human genome. On February 15, 2001, The Human Genome Project published their results in the scientific journal, Nature. The next day Celera published in the journal, Science.

The sequenced genome is a template of a normal genome, which could be used to find abnormal genes responsible for diseases. In theory, the template could be used to compare and locate any mutant genes. This could lead to treating and curing diseases (at the genetic level) that have previously been incurable. A map of the human genome could also prevent diseases; genes that predispose individuals to attracting diseases in the future could be identified years in advance.

Out Comes the Genome

The science behind sequencing the human genome has come from a century of discoveries, starting in the late 1800s. At first, genetics was an abstract concept describing hereditary information. Although it was known that hereditary information was passed through generations, the mechanisms were unknown. Once DNA and genes were discovered, the first step to sequencing the human genome was to start with simple organisms, such as, viruses, flies and worms. Then the more complicated human genome could be dealt with. Today, a complete instruction book to make a human being has been identified; however, a complete understanding of the book is still a long way off.

In a way, the human genome is simple in its design, yet incredibly complex in length of code and number of functions. The fundamental unit of the genome is DNA, coded information like letters of the alphabet. Certain sections make up genes; these are like words or sentences. The genes are strung together in chromosomes, which is comparable to chapters in a book. The genome is everything, the whole book. The function of genes is to encode for making proteins. Therefore, genes encode messages (carried by a messenger molecule called RNA) to build proteins. The proteins perform the actual tasks encoded by the genes.

Here are some interesting features of the human genome:

  •  It contains over 3 billion letters of DNA code.
  • The DNA code is written in a 4 letter alphabet (AGCT), named after the initials of the 4 basic chemical units of DNA. If it were in book form, it would take more than 1.5 million pages to write it.
  • The structure of DNA is arranged in base pairs, strands that are connected like a spiral staircase (the double helix).
  • The total number of genes is about 20,687.
  • The genome divided in 23 pairs of chromosomes, 46 in total.
  • Human complexity arises from gene networks (more so than the number of individual genes). Genes can be turned on or off in specific situations, and work in different combinations to produce near-infinite functions.
  • Genes only make up a tiny portion of the genome (only 2%). Most of the DNA either regulates genes, has unknown functions or does nothing at all (junk DNA).
  • Part of our evolutionary past is carried in the genome, fragments of DNA that no longer serve a purpose. They are relics of DNA from ancient organisms that have gone dormant over time. These fragments vastly outnumber genes.
  • Human beings are 99.9% identical at the DNA level (a discrepancy of 1 letter in every 1,200 letters).

References: Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene (New York: Simon & Schuster, (2016).

DNA – Episode 3 of 5 – The Human Race – PBS Documentary, published on Mar 21, 2013.


How Could We Discover Alien Life in The Universe?

exoplanetOf all the so-called big questions, perhaps none inspires more curiosity than the following: Is there life elsewhere in the universe? The question leads to many other questions, speculations, possibilities and impossibilities. In recent years science has made tremendous progress towards understanding the universe, both in what is out there and how it came to be. The number of stars and galaxies is enormous, and we now know that many stars have planetary systems (nearly 2000 exoplanets have been discovered). Some planets outside our solar system are believed to be earth-like, in size, composition and location in relation to their host star.

Recent discoveries have shown that other locations in the universe may have conditions similar to Earth. Our galaxy, the Sun and the Earth are not unique. That said, the Earth supports life due to a series of coincidences that may be unique. Still an unimaginably large cosmos presents many opportunities for life-giving conditions to align. This means that the possibility for alien life may be greater than once thought. There seems to be 3 ways in which humans could discover extraterrestrials: 1) Searching the universe for life. 2) Sending signals in outer space so aliens could intercept them. 3) Aliens discovering us. Let us examine these possibilities a little further:

Searching the Universe for Life

mars roverNumerous unmanned space probes have explored our Solar System. The firsts space probes to visit other planets were launched in the sixties, even before the first lunar landing. By the seventies probes were reaching the outer planets, and in 2015, New Horizons made its historic Pluto flyby (the farthest planet when I was in school). Several rovers have landed on Mars, transmitting images and analyzing soil samples (the first successful mission was in 1976). Presently, the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still operating on Mars.

Scientists have discovered much about the composition of the planets and their moons, including evidence for liquid water. A few moons of Jupiter and Saturn are believed to contain oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. And in October 2015, NASA made the announcement that liquid water flows on Mars. A number of conditions are necessary for life to exist, but liquid water is a must for all known life on Earth (the starting line in the search for life). At least if life exists somewhere without water, it would be to foreign for us to imagine.

If there is alien life in our Solar System, it would be simple life and probably microbial; but what about intelligent life? How far do we have to look? The Solar System is merely our cosmic neighborhood.

In 1995, the first exoplanet was discovered and many more followed. The existence of the planets is inferred by studying minor changes in starlight, which are caused by the presence of planets; however, the distances involved are immense. The closet star system is Alpha Centauri (a 3 star system), which is 4.25 light years away. By comparison it takes about 8 minutes for the Sun’s light to reach the earth. The Milky Way alone is 100,000 to 120,000 light years in diameter, and contains over 200 billion stars. Beyond our home galaxy, there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

By numbers alone, it seems that the opportunities for extraterrestrial life are endless. But the odds against discovering alien life seem equally as great. At this time indirect evidence is all we have. For example: exoplanets that may be located in habitable zones or distant regions that have chemical compositions similar to our Solar System. Maybe all we will find is information or signals which have to be decoded, and conclusive evidence may never be found.

Sending Signals in Outer Space

Humans have been inadvertently sending signals to the universe since the first radio and television broadcasts. By now the signals have reached thousands of star systems. However, they travel as electromagnetic waves and will go undetected unless someone has an appropriate receiver at the other end. Even if the signals have crossed advanced civilizations, what are the chances that they have built earth-like technology? There is also the evolutionary timeline to consider. Could some civilizations be too early in their development, or could others have long gone extinct?

Attempts were made to purposefully send messages to outer space. In 2008, the Beatles song “Across the Universe” was broadcasted towards Polaris (the North Star). But even traveling at light speed the signal will take over 300 years to reach its destination. And if we get a reply, it will take another 300 years.

voyager 1The space probes Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have completed their missions exploring the planets, and have left the Solar System (speeding away indefinitely). They all contain time capsules, with information about humans and our location in the universe. Incidentally, the well-known image of the pale blue dot was taken by Voyager 1 as it left our Solar System; a snapshot of the earth from 6 billion miles away.

Sending space probes into interstellar space solves one problem, but creates another. On the one hand they are concrete objects (not like radio waves), on the other hand they travel much slower than radio waves. For example, the nearest star system is 4 light years away (that’s 4 years for a radio signal). By comparison, it will take 70,000 years for the space probes to travel the same distance. Either way, the odds appear slim that our messages will ever be noticed.

Aliens Discovering Us

alienIt is possible that aliens have already discovered the Earth; they may even have tried to communicate with us. Some people believe that aliens have visited the Earth, but for a logically minded person the stories are far-fetched. From a scientific perspective, there is no evidence to support such claims. Everything scientists know about space travel makes alien visitations practically impossible. The distances are simply too great; it would take hundreds of generations to make the voyage (unless aliens have lifespans of a 1,000 years or use teleportation and wormholes, though we shouldn’t believe everything we see in Star Trek).

The most likely form of alien contact would be indirect, such as something moving at light speed, like an electromagnetic wave. An alien space probe sent many years ago would be a possibility, however, it would be a tremendous stroke of luck to pass anywhere near the Earth. Then again, it depends on how many probes are out there. The odds of being found or finding something is proportional to how many are looking. Therefore, we don’t know if humans are the only species looking to the stars for life.

A Numbers Game

By studying the light spectrum of distant galaxies, astronomers have discovered that the chemistry of the universe is similar throughout. In addition, at the largest of scales the universe has evolved basically the same everywhere. The Earth has intelligent life because of a series of fortunate events (fortunate for us); it could also have occurred elsewhere. Or maybe a very different form of life evolved due to totally different circumstances.

For example, take the Earth’s distance from the Sun as one of many specific variables. The Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun, just the right distance to allow for liquid water. To appreciate how precise the location is, the change from summer to winter is caused by a 23.5 degree tilt of the earth’s axis. As the Earth orbits the sun it either tilts towards (in summer) or away (in winter) from the sun. That’s it. Of course the northern and southern hemispheres have their seasons in reverse relation to each other.

So is the existence of life simply a numbers game? Given the unimaginable size of the universe, is it inevitable that conditions will be just right somewhere else? With the number of planets that likely exist, even if the odds for life were a billion to one, there would still be life on a billion planets. If I had to make a call, I think the odds are good that there is life elsewhere in the universe. However, the odds are slim that we will ever discover it. The distances involved present challenges that may be too much to overcome.


References: Big Picture Science: Life in Space, April 20, 2015.

Big Picture Science: How to Talk to Aliens, January 12, 2015.

Universe Today: 10 Facts About the Milky Way, by Matt Williams, December 3, 2014.

Universe Today: What is the Closest Star, by Fraser Cain, June 14, 2013.


Apollo 13: From Failure to Triumph

Apollo 13 AstonautsOn April 11, 1970, the Apollo 13 Saturn V rocket escaped from Earth’s gravity and headed towards the moon. The astronauts on board were Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. Of the three, Lovell was the only one who had previously gone to the moon (on Apollo 8). However, that mission’s objective was to orbit the moon only. For Lovell and Haise Apollo 13 presented the opportunity of a life time; they would get the chance to walk on the moon, so they thought.

Leading up to the mission Apollo 13 lacked the media attention given to the first two moon landings (Apollo 11 and 12). Understandably the first landing made history, and the second landing might have given the public the false impression that it was becoming routine. In the end Apollo 13 became perhaps the most dramatic and famous of all the Apollo missions.

“Houston we’ve had a Problem Here”

Comand module

On the evening of April 13 the spaceship was 200,000 miles away from Earth when everything changed for Apollo 13. On what was considered to be a routine procedure, Swigert flipped the switch to initiate a cryo stir. The stir would fan and heat the super cold oxygen and prevent it from settling into layers inside a tank located in the Service Module. The Service Module was attached below the Command Module and contained the oxygen tanks and the main engine of the spaceship. Moments later the crew was startled by an explosion. Alarm lights lit up and Swigert uttered his now famous words “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

It wasn’t long before Mission Control realized that Apollo 13 would not be landing on the Moon. The objective had suddenly changed into a rescue mission. After the explosion Lovell looked outside through a window and noticed a gas escaping from the spacecraft. It was determined that the gas was oxygen. The implication of the loss of oxygen was significant. The Command Module (Odyssey) had now lost its normal supply of electricity, light and water. With the Command Module now compromised, the crew needed to find a way to preserve it for re-entry.

Managing the Crisis

It was determined that the Command Module needed to be temporally shutdown and later re-powered for re-entry. This part of the spacecraft had to remain viable because it contained the heat shield. In the meantime all three astronauts would have to jam inside the Lunar Module (Aquarius), which was designed for a two-man moon landing. Mission Control was faced with procedures that had never been done before. They had to solve problems on the ground by writing procedures down and then testing them on the simulator before instructing the crew. There was no time to waste, so Haise and Lovell powered-up the Lunar Module while Swigert shut down the Command Module.

mission control houstonAfter a day and a half inside the Lunar Module the carbon dioxide levels became a chief concern. The Lunar Module was not equipped to handle a third astronaut for an extended period of time. Mission Control had to solve the problem by figuring out how to adapt the lithium hydroxide canisters from the Command Module to the Lunar Module. These canisters removed carbon dioxide from the spacecraft but the square canisters from the Command Module were not compatible with the round openings in the Lunar Module. From the ground the crew was instructed to use plastic bags, cardboard and tape to fit the Command Module canisters to the Lunar Module system. It worked and a potentially fatal problem was averted.

To facilitate the return trip Mission Control decided to use the moon’s gravity and slingshot around. The spaceship’s course had to be altered from a landing trajectory to a loop around the moon. Two initial burns were performed, one 35 second burn as they approached the moon; then a longer 5 minute speed-up burn two hours after going around the dark side of the moon. A third burn would later be required to adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory before re-entry. All this had to be done with the Lunar Module even thought it was not designed for these maneuvers. However, out of necessity, Mission Control and the crew made it work.

The Cold Trip Home  

The Lunar Module had to be preserved for an additional two days longer than it was designed for. Every nonessential system was turned off to conserve energy. This was necessary, however, it meant that the crew would have an unpleasant return trip. Temperatures dropped to near freezing, water was rationed and some food became inedible; the crew became hungry and dehydrated. For the next few days they got little sleep and Haise developed a kidney infection.

Despite the discomfort inside the Lunar Module it had done its job; now it was time to power-up the Command Module for the last leg of the journey. No one knew for sure how this would go. The Command Module had never been left in the deep freeze of outer space and then re-powered. Mission Control relayed the instructions and the crew wrote down the steps. This was no simple task, because there were over 500 steps to follow to the letter. Fortunately the Command Module came back to life.

A Glorious Return

A few hours before re-entry the Service Module was jettisoned and for the first time the crew was able to see the damage from the explosion. A whole panel had been blown off. One Oxygen tank had been completely destroyed and another one damaged. A NASA investigation later revealed that a spark from an exposed wire inside an oxygen tank caused the fire.

The Lunar Module was then let go and all that remained was the Command Module. There was a concern that the heat shield may have suffered some damage in the explosion. Nevertheless, at this point there was nothing that could be done about it. Re-entry was imminent; everyone held their breath and hoped that the heat shield would hold up. Normally a loss of communication of about four minutes is expected as the spacecraft enters the earth’s atmosphere; however in this case it took an additional 1 minute and 27 seconds before communication was restored.

Mission controlWhen word was finally received from the crew, Mission Control erupted in celebration. On April 17 the Command Module splashed down in the Pacific  Ocean; at last they were home. Although Apollo 13 did not achieve what it initially set out to do, it did test Mission Control and three astronauts to their limit. Ironically, what could be viewed as a failed mission, turned out to be arguably Apollo’s finest hour.


References: Apollo 13: Facts About NASA’s Near-Disaster, Elizabeth Howell, Contributor   |   August 23, 2012 12:38pm ET, 2014.

Apollo 13 (July 8, 2009), September 19th, 2013.

Apollo 13 – The Real Story (Published on Jun 2, 2013)

Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13.


The Apollo Missions: The Golden Age of Space Flight

I was born in 1963, when the Apollo program was just beginning. I still have vivid memories of the last few Apollo missions (the program lasted until the early 70’s). Apollo made quite an impression on a young kid. What a thrill it was for our home room school teacher to bring a television set to class, so we could watch the return of the astronauts from space. Back in those days the method of re-entry was called a splash down. As the Command Module passed through the atmosphere and approached the earth three parachutes opened. Then it all ended in a splash as the spaceship fell into the ocean. For some reason I have no recollection of the moon landings; perhaps they happened late at night, I don’t know. I do, however, remember footage of the astronauts testing a vehicle on the surface of the moon called the Lunar Rover.

Despite the enthusiasm of many kids and science buffs, Apollo got off to a rocky start. On January 27, 1967 the first Apollo mission turned into a disaster when a fire ignited the Command Module. In a pre-flight test, astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives. Later, investigators pointed to high levels of oxygen and exposed wiring as possible causes for the fire. In any event, Apollo 1 was the program’s lowest point, but it would recover from this and eventually go on to make history.

Preparing for a Moon Landing   

Saturn vSeveral missions were necessary before any attempt could be made at landing a man on the surface of the moon. Apollo 4 through 6 (Apollo never flew any spaceship with the name Apollo 2 or 3) were unmanned missions for the purpose of testing the Saturn V launch vehicle. The first manned Apollo mission was Apollo 7 which propelled the Saturn V into earth’s orbit for a few rotations before re-entry.

The Saturn V rocket was a fascination for many kids. My older brother Gilles had a model of the final stage of the Saturn V. On his bedroom desk he displayed the Command and Service Modules, along with the Lunar Module. The Command and Service Modules would orbit the moon and the Lunar Module would land. In the eye of a young boy they looked just like the real thing. Each module could be separated manually and then resembled. I wonder what ever happened to that thing; it would be great to see it again.

Apollo 8 and Earthrise

With Apollo 8 things began to get a little more interesting. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to enter lunar orbit. This was the first time that man experienced the dark side of the moon. The moon is in gravitational lock with the earth, therefore the same side is always facing us. As you might expect there wasn’t much to see. Some astronauts described the experience of the dark side as eerie and foreboding. The fact that radio communication with ground control was lost behind the moon probably didn’t help either.

The Moon has little color to it, but it did change character depending on the angle of the sun. As the spacecraft moved along in orbit, the lunar surface went from not very hospitable at low sun angle, to a fairly friendly looking place at high sun angle. From our view on earth the moon looks white or silver, but the lunar samples retrieved from later Apollo missions are actually black, charcoal and asphalt. What a strange feeling it must have been to be the first humans to get a close look at the moon. As NASA astromaterials curator Carlton Allen puts it “It’s hard to wrap your mind around a place where nothing ever happens, but the moon is that place.”

earthrise Apollo 8Perhaps the highlight of Apollo 8 was captured in a now famous photograph. This picture is normally referred to as “earthrise.” It was taken on December 24, 1968 by crew member Bill Anders. When the spaceship came around from the far side of the moon the earth became visible over the horizon. Our bright colorful planet stands as a beacon against a black background and the near colorless moon. It’s interesting that we had to travel thousands of miles to get a clear look at ourselves. NASA astronaut Anders said of the photo “We came all this way to discover the moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.”

Apollo 9 and 10: Final Preparations

The next step for NASA was to test the Lunar Module in maneuvers that would be needed in lunar orbit. However, Apollo 9 did this while orbiting the earth. The mission tested the Lunar Module as a self-sufficient spacecraft. Rendezvous and docking with the Command Module were also worked on. The dress rehearsal came next with Apollo 10. This mission accomplished everything that a moon landing would, except the landing. The Lunar Module separated from the Command Module and descended to about 9 miles of the lunar surface before re-joining the command ship. The stage was now set for achieving the ultimate goal of Apollo.

 Apollo 11: The Moment of Truth

U.S. President John F. Kennedy set the bar high when on May 25, 1961 he stated that the nation should commit itself to sending a man on the moon and to bring him back safely. And to do this by the end of the decade. Unfortunately President Kennedy would not live long enough to see his vision realized.

Nevertheless, on July 20, 1969 the NASA Lunar Module (Eagle) landed on the surface of the moon. The decent took a little longer than expected and touched down with just seconds left of fuel allocated for landing. Almost immediately after landing, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ”Buzz” Aldrin had to do a system check to make sure that they could remain on the moon. The tests were successful and the decision was to stay. Upon landing, mission control had scheduled a 4 hour sleep period for the astronauts. But Armstrong and Aldrin asked to delay the rest period and go ahead with preparations for a moon walk. I can certainly see their point; in reality, who’s going to sleep just after landing on the moon.

AstronautSix hours after landing Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. With his first step he spoke to the world, “one small step for (a) man one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin would join him several minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin spent about 2 and a half hours on the moon (outside the spacecraft). Once both were back in the Lunar Module, all that remained was to return home safely.

After a little less than a day in total on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared for rendezvous with Michael Collins operating the Command Module (Colombia). Collins had been in lunar orbit awaiting his crew members. Due to weight restrictions the Lunar Module had only one engine designed for launch and it had to work. If it failed, there would be no way to rescue the men off the moon. In going through the launch sequence Aldrin noticed a broken circuit breaker; it was the one switch necessary for igniting the engine. Aldrin improvised by pushing a pen into the switch’s remaining space, and it worked.

All three astronauts were then reunited as the Lunar Module docked successfully with the Command Module. The Lunar Module was then released into space and crashed on the surface of the moon. The crew headed for home as heroes. And on July 24, the Command Module splashed down as planed into the Pacific Ocean.

The Legacy of Apollo 

luna module on moonApollo went on to land 5 more missions on the moon. But by Apollo 17 (the final Apollo mission) the luster was gone. Considering the exorbitant cost of the program and the lack of practicality of moon missions, Apollo was terminated. Some could argue that from a practical stand point, going to the moon did not accomplish very much. Could the money spent on Apollo have been used for better means? Did the U.S. go to the moon simply for political reasons, because of a so-called space race with the Soviet Union?

When I think of Apollo, money or politics is not what comes to mind. For sure there have been more significant discoveries that have benefited mankind in tangible ways. However, in terms of setting a goal and overcoming challenges, no human accomplishment even comes close. To think that in 1969 (with computers with less computing power than today’s mobile phone) we could put a man on the moon is staggering. I for one am in awe of what NASA accomplished with the Apollo program. Apollo should serve as inspiration for all of us. In my opinion, history will forever be divided in two categories (before we walked on the moon, and after we walked on the moon). No matter how ambitious a goal might be, the legacy of Apollo should give us pause before we say, ‘It can’t be done.’


References: Craig Nelson, Rocket Men (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009) 229,230.

See the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” in a Whole New Way, by Nancy Atkinson on December 20, 2013: