Walking in their footsteps
During his time at ASU, Moore also laid the groundwork for ASU’s big future in space. The stewardship of the finest meteor collection at any university was later passed on to Meenakshi Wadhwa, a cosmochemist fascinated by the formation and evolution of the solar system.
She was too young to remember the Apollo 11 mission but recalls her parents' stories of witnessing the event in India.
“At the time, we didn’t have a television in my home," Wadhwa said. "A lot of what my parents remember was a lot of the public viewings. In public places they would bring these televisions out and people would watch. Huge crowds, actually. And that’s how my parents remember the moon landings.”
Wadhwa has additional perspective from years of lunar, Mars and solar system analyses from the ASU meteorite collection and robotic solar system exploration.
“The analysis of lunar samples that were brought back from the moon in the 1960s and early 1970s — it completely changed our view of how the moon formed, its origin and how it's related to the Earth, for example,” said Wadhwa, who recently became the director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.
"When I learned that there were samples that we could analyze, from these places, from the moon, and also from Mars as meteorites, I was totally hooked," she said. "I wanted to study these rocks and learn something about how these planets formed. To me, the Apollo samples from the moon as well as some meteorites that come from the moon, these are fascinating samples that can tell us a lot about the history of the moon. And similarly, meteorites from Mars can tell us so much about the geology and evolution of mars, the origin and evolution of Mars."
The moon rocks that came with Apollo also revealed the moon's fiery past for the first time. The samples showed that the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquility was once the site of tremendous volcanic activity, and the mostly smooth, flat surface was due to broad, thin flows of lava that had flooded the region. Later moon rock analyses revealed even more secrets, leading scientists to believe that a Mars-sized planet once collided with Earth, exploding into a ring of debris that formed the moon about 4.5 billion years ago.
“We learned it had to be a very hot origin for the moon because the samples we analyzed were extremely depleted in elements that are very volatile," Wadhwa said. "Elements that evaporate very quickly when things heat up were in lower abundance on the moon, and so we realized the moon had to have a very hot origin.
“Actually, the very first samples that were picked up by Neil Armstrong, scientists found these specks of white mineral called plagioclase, and just based on the presence of this white mineral, scientists proposed that there was a lunar magma ocean, an ocean of lava on the surface of the moon sometime in the past. And the white mineral actually formed as a flotation crust on the surface. And so, really, we understood a lot about the history of the moon and how it formed from analyzing these first samples that were brought back from the moon 50 years ago."
A panoramic view of Little West crater and the lunar module in the distance, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Photo courtesy of NASA
Giant leaps forward
Moore later hired Ron Greeley, who had also participated with NASA in astronaut training and mapping lunar landing sites. Later, he became the first interplanetary ASU scientific explorer, focusing on Mars.
"It was exciting to have him here; he was a major step in advancing space at ASU. He was the first one that came that did missions and experiments on planetary bodies," Moore said. "He was really the first person to reach out to the other planets.”
Greeley's projects included the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Shuttle Imaging Radar orbiter around Earth. He was also part of the data analysis program for the Voyager 2 mission to Uranus and Neptune. His projects focused on the moons of these distant bodies.
Ron Greeley became the first interplanetary ASU scientific explorer, focusing on Mars.
Passionate also about Mars exploration, he was involved with several missions to the red planet, including Mariners 6, 7 and 9, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He was a co-investigator for the camera system onboard the European Mars Express mission. Greeley died in 2011, and the Ron Greeley Center for Planetary Studies at ASU is one of 17 regional sites NASA has designated to archive images for educational and scientific use.
Greeley also hired Phil Christensen, who again put ASU on the international scientific map for space exploration through his work on Mars exploration and, more recently, a rendezvous of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with the meteorite Bennu. ASU has had key instruments onboard Mars missions for more than two decades.
Through their endeavors, ASU became world-renowned as a go-to university for the robotic exploration of the solar system.
Then in 2006, ASU began a multi- and transdisciplinary era with the formation of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Founding Director Kip Hodges and later head of the school Lindy Elkins-Tanton came to ASU to guide the era of ASU’s 21st-century space exploration. Recently, Elkins-Tanton, who is also co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative, handed over the reins of the school to Wadhwa in order to focus on her lead scientist role in the Psyche mission, which is set to launch in 2022.
The impact and legacy of the Apollo missions also helped shape the development of Elkins-Tanton's career.
"I do remember the Apollo 11 landing," said Elkins-Tanton, who was just 3 at the time. "I’m one of these blessed with a few very early memories, of which this is one. I remember sitting in our living room and watching on our black-and-white television with my parents and my brothers.
“But I didn’t become really, really excited about Apollo again until I was in graduate school and got to work on some of the return samples. I studied some of the samples that really hadn’t been studied since the year that they came back, and I reanalyzed them with modern instruments, and I looked at the handwritten notes of the people that had done it first and I looked at exactly the same places that they looked at."
Elkins-Tanton sees common themes in the exploration of the moon and the mission to asteroid Psyche.
“I remain interested in the mysterious ability we have to understand the inside of a rocky planet by looking at the volcanic material that erupts on the surface," she said. "It almost feels like therapy, or psychotherapy, like we can delve into the unconscious in a sense, the place we can’t physically reach and still find out what’s going on there by looking at what comes out of a volcano.
"I do think (Apollo 11) was a moment that changed everything forever,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And then, for the rest of my life, we haven’t been on the moon again. It’s time we go back."
Recently, Elkins-Tanton had a front-row seat at a return-to-the-moon endeavor from the commercial space company Blue Origin, where Jeff Bezos unveiled for the first time his company's plans for human lunar exploration.
ASU will develop one or more payload experiments to be launched aboard Blue Origin’s Blue Moon, a flexible lander delivering a wide variety of small, medium and large payloads to the lunar surface.
"It's wonderful to be working so closely with our skilled, innovative and entrepreneurial colleagues at Blue Origin,” Bell said. “This collaboration will provide opportunities for our students to get hands-on experience with space experiments and systems and for our faculty to make significant advances in space science, engineering and education.”
Bell likens the commercial space sector to the development of commercial aviation a century ago.
"NASA is partnering and funding them. Our tax dollars at work, just like the government funded the airline industry 100 years ago," he said. "There were a couple of entrepreneurs, some rich people who liked to fly. The government says, 'Hey, let’s do something useful with it,' and provides these juicy government contracts to deliver the mail. Now, they are doing some similar things."
The goal is to help bring the cost of launch down, which Bell says is the biggest barrier to space exploration, and in return, the companies are bringing innovations like landing and relanding rockets or using different fuels.
"Our goal is to explore space, to educate students, to rewrite the textbooks. Our job in the NewSpace initiative is to find commercial partners where we can get our goals done and they can get their goals done, too," Bell said. "The idea is to find entrepreneurial companies and make it a win-win for the university and the companies involved. Those new players have to compete for opportunities. If they (NASA) are investing taxpayer dollars, they want those missions to work."
Fire and ice
Besides the moon's fiery past, another exciting discovery for the lunar scientific community has been the presence of water ice deposits in the craters.
“What excites everyone is the moon is our nearest neighbor in the solar system,” said Assistant Professor Craig Hardgrove, who is leading a new ASU mission to explore and map the moon's water ice.
“Every night, you can look up, for the most part, and see the moon. It’s something everyone can connect to. It is in space and is a destination still relatively unexplored," he said. "So, I think the moon is a compelling destination for that reason; we can all see it and wonder, why is that there? In my field in particular, the thing I found most exciting is the presence of water and water ice at the south and north pole of the moon.”
Hardgrove leads the LunaH-Map mission, the first full-on spacecraft that ASU has developed entirely in house. They are building a shoebox-size spacecraft called a cube satellite, or cubesat.
“I think that’s why it’s important for ASU and it really demonstrates leadership in this area," he said. "This is the first deep space science cubesat mission.”
Hardgrove is part of a new generation of ASU explorers for whom the history of Apollo has served as inspiration.
“The inspiration I find today is that there was a time when NASA didn’t know how to land things on the moon,” he said, “and we didn’t know how to land things on Mars and how to explore the solar system. We are trying to figure that out today in sort of a new paradigm, particularly, with these very small spacecraft that we are trying to develop.”
And even though he wasn’t yet born at the time, Hardgrove has a family connection to Apollo — a keepsake in the form of a piece of the heat shield from one of the missions stored in a little glass capsule. His family was given the memento when his grandfather-in-law retired from NASA.
That reminder helps get him through the challenging times as the LunaH-Map mission fast approaches a 2020 launch date.
“I often want to talk to the people that were doing Apollo or whatever came before," Hardgrove said. "There was no playbook. That’s where we are at. We are inventing the playbook to do a mission at this scale. That’s terrifying and exciting and keeps me up at night.”
Hardgrove’s team hopes to generate a map that will identify the enrichments of water ice that exists.
“It’s also important for human exploration. So, NASA and many others want to send robotic explorers and eventually human explorers back to the moon. Understanding where the resources lie is a really important question, and how much is there. Water is a really important resource for human exploration, so if we can understand how much is there and exactly where it is, we’ll be able to plan future NASA missions or future commercial missions to the moon to actually harness that water as a resource.”
The human need to explore
The historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in “The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself": “The most promising words ever written on the maps of human knowledge are terra incognita — unknown territory.”
The drive for exploration is entwined deep within the DNA of the human species. Perhaps this is the very heart of the collective, philosophical meaning of the Apollo missions 50 years later.
"That goal, that project, was the work of an entire generation of aerospace engineers, scientists, managers, administrators and educators who went on to do the space shuttle program and the robotic program that NASA does today," Bell said. "And, in many ways, that generation really is still there, doing that kind of work, trying to inspire the next generation, the next round of simply stated missions that engage the country, that push us as a nation and as species to higher places then we've ever been."
Making the Apollo mission happen involved uniting a country like never before, using 10 times the current NASA budget and know-how and efforts from all disciplines.
"It almost seems unbelievable,” Bell said. “It also seems like a miracle that it happened, with mid- to late-1960s technology. They did all of Apollo with not the computing power of your smartphone, but your key fob for your car. It was slide rules and manual calculations and a half-million people. That's something I didn't fully appreciate. How much teamwork is involved and how much no individual can make any of these things happen whether they are human missions or robotic missions. The large-scale projects that we as humans decide to do require teams to work together."
The collective ASU space projects seek to expand the human experience.
“We really don’t know what Psyche is, and we just want to go and learn the most fundamental things about it," Elkins-Tanton said. "It’s amazing to be doing something and adding to the sum of human knowledge this way."
She aims to include as diverse a group of people on her team as possible.
“Everyone is invited, and connected to everyone else in the world we can," she said. "That’s why we explore. That’s why we are going back to the moon, it’s because we can’t help ourselves. It’s because we as a species have got to go find out. And the only way that’s worthwhile, I think, is if everyone is invited to the party. That’s what I want Psyche to be.”
Because the nature of space missions typically take a decade or two from idea to execution, someone could very well be sitting in their middle school or high school class today, and become a key leader in a space mission tomorrow.
"I hope that is inspirational to people — you can come up with an idea and put it on the next NASA mission," Hardgrove said. "And NASA wants these types of spacecraft to be flying along to all their deep space missions, whether they are going to Mars, Jupiter, Europa, Titan, etc. Maybe there is a concept out there for a little tiny mission that NASA would never put on the big spacecraft, but they do on a cereal box. That’s a really fun idea that I hope is exciting for future generations interested in deep space exploration."
As teachers, all of ASU's space scientists want to pay it forward to inspire the next generation of explorers.
“I want to help young people imagine that you could be doing this,” Bell said. “This could be part of your future.”
A new world
For those future missions, the talents of journalists, broadcasters, historians and artists will be used to record, document and comment on these endeavors, as Cronkite once did.
Some time after the silver anniversary of Apollo 11, Cronkite reflected back on the human significance of the event he broadcast.
“That will be the one event of the 20th century, despite all the other great scientific and technological innovations and inventions that came down the line, that will live in history 500 years from now,” he said as he received a NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award on Feb. 28, 2006.
During the award ceremony, Cronkite drew parallels between Christopher Columbus' 1492 discovery of the Americas, Apollo 11 and future exploration.
"I think that 500 years from now the young people that are living on space stations and space cities and perhaps on the orbs themselves out there ... they will be recognizing (the moon landing as) the most important feat of all time."
Carleton Moore (left) chats with Mark Robinson after a special public screening of the documentary Apollo 11 at the ASU Marston Theater on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Photo by Joe Caspermeyer
The ASU space explorer who started it all, Carleton Moore, understood that historical perspective. Among the almost 2,000 meteorites now in the ASU collection, there is one from France that fell to Earth in 1492.
At Moore’s retirement ceremony, ASU President Michael Crow said, “Remember, when all of us in this room are long gone, this meteorite collection will be here.”
Moore is proud of ASU's contributions to Apollo and the legacy of space exploration that continues onward today. “Fifty years have zipped by and now ASU is a winner in space,” the now 87-year-old emeritus professor said recently via email.
And for ASU, 50 years after Apollo, exploration will continue to be a way of life.
"This is a great time to be alive because we are exploring so many places in our solar system, and actually bringing back samples from many places in our solar system now," Wadhwa said. "Apollo happened 50 years ago. And human exploration of space since then has been limited to just low-Earth orbit. I think it’s so exciting with all of the commercial entities that are out there, and NASA pushing the frontiers as well, to really make it possible now for the human exploration of the moon, Mars, and possibly further.
"And ASU will be key and central to any endeavor that involves exploration of our solar system and beyond."
Top photo: Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July, 20, 1969, marking the first time humans had stepped on another world. Here, Buzz Aldrin is pictured on the moon's surface. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, can be seen in the reflection on Aldrin’s visor. Photo courtesy of NASA