By Mary O’KEEFE
On July 20, 1969 the world waited to hear those four words that changed the way we looked at space: “The Eagle has landed.” – Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 astronaut commander.
The guys on the ground countered this after hearing the landing confirmation.
“You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue; we are breathing again.” – Houston NASA Mission Control.
With that, the United States became the first country to have humans explore the surface of the moon and travel safely back. It was the moon, the closest satellite to us and the one all could easily see just by looking into the night sky.
This week we can look back 46 years to the lunar landing, not at what it accomplished, grand as it was, but because it paved the way for more space exploration and meeting the next challenge of getting men and women to walk the sand of Mars.
“One of the first things we are looking at [and what they looked at] for sending [astronauts] to the moon is where are [they] going to land,” said Rich Zurek, Mars Program Office Chief Scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA.
Those in charge of looking for landing areas explore not only where it is safe to land but also where is the most interesting place to do scientific experiments, he added.
“The lunar orbiters did reconnaissance,” Zurek said.
Those early orbiters looked at the moon in the same way today’s orbiters looked at Mars as NASA prepares for humans to travel and explore the Red Planet.
“By the mid-2030s I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it,” said President Barack Obama during a NASA address.
The exploration of Mars began years ago and so far scientists at JPL know quite a bit about it.
“We have landed on the surface and have the ability to move across it. We know what it is like to put a wheel in the sand,” Zurek said.
There are still many issues that need to be addressed and questions that need to be answered before that first boot steps onto Mars’ surface.
“When humans go to a place they bring life with them,” he said.
Scientists do not know for certain that there is no life on Mars and do not want to contaminate the Martian surface.
Scientists also have to determine what Mars can provide for future explorers. If, for example, they put a nuclear power plant on Mars to support a human base, how would they get the equipment to build the plant?
They will also look at the effects of gravity, or lack of gravity, on a person. Those studies have been going on with the help of the International Space Station.
“The difference with the Apollo program is a [Martian trip] will be a longer-term stay,” Zurek said.
There will be obstacles, but there were with the moon landing as well.
“Space is dangerous,” he said. “The Apollo program, the landing on the moon and getting them back safely, is what can happen if you make it a national program and get smart people involved.”
What was learned by the successes and the failures of the Apollo mission is the foundation of space exploration including a manned trip to Mars.
“It all started with the moon … We are always interested in exploring,” Zurek said. “We want to know what is over the next hill and Mars is over the next hill.”