Remembering the past while looking forward

As the nation celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, a look at Penn’s connection to the historic event and how the Moon impacts science, politics, and culture.

view of the earth from the moon, apollo 11
View from the Apollo 11 spacecraft shows Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon. The lunar terrain pictured is in the area of Smyth’s Sea on the nearside. (Photo: NASA)

In the middle of a tumultuous period in America’s history, marked by the Vietnam War, a river catching on fire, and reactive music festivals, July 20, 1969 was marked by a simple yet poignant observation from Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned vessel to land on the Moon, is an opportunity to reflect on the many ways that Earth’s satellite impacts culture, politics, and science. From the technological achievements that made the mission possible to the thirst for discovery that continues to drive space explorations, the story of Apollo 11 is one of both nostalgia and forward thinking.

Penn and Apollo 11

Penn is connected to the Apollo 11 mission through alumni who played major roles in the success of the mission. Major General Frederic H. Miller, a Wharton MBA graduate, served as the Director of Installation Support at Kennedy Space Center, where he was responsible for general operations and management of the country’s spaceport.

penn milton rosen and nasa
Milton W. Rosen (second left), rocket engineer and early NASA executive. (Photo: Martin Aircraft Co.)

Electrical engineer Milton Rosen helped develop the Viking and Vanguard rockets, with the Vanguard 1 becoming the second artificial satellite placed in Earth’s orbit by the U.S. He later helped oversee other innovative engineering endeavors at NASA, including the Apollo program.

A physical part of Penn’s history also traveled to Earth’s orbit, when astronaut and Penn alum Garrett E. Reisman took a piece of the ENIAC computer to the International Space Station.

Science and society

There were a number of key engineering challenges that Apollo 11 had to address in order to become a successful mission: Keeping people alive in space; constructing a safe, reliable, and economic launch vehicle; and bringing together teams of scientists and engineers to make everything come together over a short period of time.

apollo 11 construction
Apollo 11 command and service modules as it was under construction. (Photo: NASA)

But outside of its scientific and technological feats, the success of Apollo 11 lunar landing was as much driven by political pressures as it was by technological achievements. Walter A. McDougall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “...the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age” provides a detailed glimpse into the politics underlying the U.S., European, and Soviet space programs.

McDougall argues that achievements made during the space race were driven in part by the Soviet Union becoming the first “technocracy,” or “the institutionalization of technological change for state purpose.” The success of Sputnik 1 as Earth’s first artificial satellite shocked the U.S. and quickly became an impetus for the “race” between the two global superpowers.

“When the Russians orbited Sputnik in 1957,” says McDougall, “almost everyone panicked except Eisenhower. ‘The Moon isn’t going anywhere,’ he said, ‘and one satellite does not cancel out our nuclear deterrent.’ So he and Keith Glennan, the first NASA administrator, pledged a steady ‘building blocks’ approach to space, with moderate but steady budgets, a long horizon, and ample seed money for promising new ideas.”

And while their approach was successful at getting the first men onto the Moon, America’s place as the global leader in space technology didn’t last. With the 1986 Challenger explosion revealing the flaws in NASA’s shuttle program, McDougall says that America’s fall from technological grace was due in part to the politics that drove the race to begin with.

“The space program suffered from the ‘Kennedy effect,’ the fact that he made it a race. For that meant that once the race was over and won, the American people were bound to relax. Once the Soviet threat diminished, we lost our sense of urgency about strategic technology,” says McDougall.

Lunar culture

Outside of its ties to science and politics, the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s artist-in-residence and Philadelphia native Rebecca Kamen has been looking at the 1969 lunar landing from an artist’s perspective. Through her work, which sits at the intersection of art and science, she strives to understand the process of scientific creativity. 

lunar landing boot print
Buzz Aldrin’s boot print from the Apollo 11 mission, one of the first steps taken on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (Photo: NASA)

Her latest project, PLOT, is a celebration of Apollo 11 and the “spirit of exploration and discovery.” The video combines sculptures inspired by historic lunar engravings and drawings with cymatics, or the visualization of sound waves, and explores how societies across the world and across time have been fascinated with the Moon.

“The Moon connects all cultures,” she says. “It captures our imagination as we view the night sky in awe, and as we attempt to understand lunar narratives which continue to be revealed.”

Looking back on that day 50 years ago when she watched Armstrong take his first steps on the Moon on a small TV screen, Kamen also found that her personal experience helped her understand the importance of video as a medium for remembering this historic event.

neil armstrong apollo commander
Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, inside the lunar module as it rests on the lunar surface after completion of his historic moonwalk. (Photo: NASA)

“So much of the lunar landing was informed by the way we experienced it, which was through TV,” Kamen says. “It became a visual cultural event for those of us who were fortunate enough to watch it in real time. It’s been exciting using my artwork to interpret and celebrate its significance.”

In contrast to Kamen’s experience, McDougall was stationed in Vietnam during the Apollo 11 landing, and only read about the event seven days later. While he admits that the event didn’t leave a huge impact on him at the time, the research he did for his book provided additional perspective. “In the hyperactive technological landscape of the sixties, I think we kids took the big rockets for granted—sort of the government’s equivalent of a Pontiac GTO. Only in 1979 … did I come to know how big a part Sputnik and Apollo, and all they came to stand for, played in the life of our times.”

Looking forward

As NASA continues to celebrate this historic event through photos, video, and audio from that momentous day in July of 1969, the agency is also poised for a 2024 return to the Moon through the Artemis Program. Recent progress with the successful test of Orion’s safety systems is promising, but the sheer amount of force and fuel required to get a human-piloted space craft into orbit will continue to be a challenge for any future missions to the Moon.

launch of apollo 11
Saturn V launch vehicle (SA-506) for the Apollo 11 mission liftoff at 8:32 a.m. CDT, July 16, 1969, from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Apollo 11 was the first human-piloted lunar landing mission with a crew of three astronauts: mission commander Neil A. Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (Photo: NASA)

“In terms of computing power, we’re light-years ahead of where people were in 1969,” says cosmologist Cullen Blake. “But the fundamental fact remains: You have to convert a certain amount of fuel into a certain amount of thrust to get people off the ground, and going to space with people is really expensive.”

For comparison, the Apollo mission cost nearly $300 billion in today’s dollars, and during the 1960’s NASA’s budget was over 4% of total federal spending. And even with improvements in computing power as well as other technologies, such as lighter and more heat-resistant materials for new spacecraft, Artemis’ projected cost of $30 billion means that back to the Moon is not going to be any easier, or cheaper, than it was 50 years ago.

But Blake says that NASA’s role in science during the past 50 years, and the technologies developed because of the Apollo program, are incredibly worthwhile. “You will hear people say that manned space flights cost so much, and we don’t learn anything, but I think that’s really nearsighted. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around how important manned space flights and the Space Station are, but I think it’s important that it keeps going so that all the things that NASA is involved with keep going as well,” he says.

With a possible return to the Moon in 2024, Kamen is interested to see how the world would react now that information is more fast-paced and pervasive than it was in the 1960s. “There’s a different sense of awe and wonder,” she says, “The process of knowing in the 21st century is very different than it was when I was growing up.”

But, she adds, any future trip to the Moon will continue to convey to society what can be accomplished when people innovate and dream big. “When I think about the lunar landing, I think about the fact that when I was born, the thought of going to the Moon was a fantasy—and now it’s happened. The world continues to be full of exciting possibilities, a place where all things are possible,” she says.

Penn will continue to contribute to the potential possibilities of space exploration, with active research programs on the impacts of radiation exposure during space travel, the long-term health effects of living in space, and using “organs-on-a-chip” at the International Space Station to understand why astronauts become sick more easily in orbit.

And while there is much work to be done in taking a human-piloted mission back to the Moon, and someday, perhaps, even Mars, as a planetary scientist working with NASA on finding new Earth-like planets, Blake says that the lunar landing is truly something to be proud of.

“We were brought up thinking of [Apollo 11] as a really awesome achievement that our country had on a really short timescale. I think people are proud of it and would like to see it continue,” he says.

artwork for the moon landing anniversary
This single-frame image from PLOT, Rebecca Kamen and Tim Chrepta’s video, shows a sculpture inspired by lunar engravings and cymatic imagery. (Photo: Kamen/Chrepta)

Cullen Blake is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rebecca Kamen is a visiting scholar and artist-in-residence in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Walter A. McDougall is a professor of history and the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations in the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

PLOT was created for an art exhibition in Australia to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission and was created in collaboration with Tim Chrepta. Venues for the exhibition of videos in Australia include Canberra Space Centre, Deep Space Communication Network (NASA), Parkes Observatory, Visitors Centre (CSIRO). Research for PLOT was conducted at The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Linda Hall Library, the Wright Brothers Archives at the Franklin Institute, and the NASA Archives.