It happened 48 years ago: A look back at the Apollo 11 moon landing

ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration professor Mark Robinson on the historical significance of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Michael Jackson's moonwalk glide across the stage on May 16, 1983, motivated one generation to dance — or at least try to.

But another generation credits the first moon walk on July 20, 1969, for inspiring them to become interested in science.

Mark Robinson, now a professor at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, was a 10-year-old growing up in Tennessee when history unfolded.

Gathered around the television with his family, he watched in suspense as announcers kept emphasizing that they didn't know whether the lunar module, called "Eagle," was going to be able to land. Astronauts might have had to abort the landing if conditions got too risky.

After astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered the now-famous phrase, "the Eagle has landed," Robinson still didn't relax. He waited impatiently for the first moon walk, which didn't happen for another six hours.

It was late by then, but he wasn't tired. He stayed up to watch the entire broadcast.

Shortly before 11 p.m. Eastern time, Armstrong climbed down the ladder and declared: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Thursday marks the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The milestone is still looked back on today for its technological achievements and as a point of pride for the U.S. space program.

The moon landing was more than just a historical achievement. Grainy footage of the moon walk inspired children, like Robinson, to become interested in geology, science and space.

Robinson, 58, now oversees the cameras on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an unmanned NASA spacecraft circling the moon since 2009. The camera's images are forming a detailed map of the moon, which could be used to guide astronauts on future missions.

The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com talked with Robinson about the significance of the moon landing, what's happened since and whether there are plans to go back.

Cultural impact: 'Everybody was rooting for them'

The moon landing fulfilled an objective set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, which was to land a man on the moon and return to Earth safely by the end of the decade.

The United States was in a rivalry with the Soviet Union that extended to the military and to space. The Russians were the first to send an unmanned satellite, Sputnik 1, to orbit the Earth in 1957 and the first to send a human into space in 1961.But NASA's success in landing a man on the moon represented a huge technological and scientific achievement.

"We weren’t going to the moon because President Kennedy was truly interested in (the geology of the moon)," Robinson said. "We were going to the moon to prove to the world that we were technologically superior to the Soviet Union."

Robinson said NASA was truly dedicated to accomplishing President Kennedy's goal within the time frame.

"It was an amazing time. Everybody was rooting for them all around the world, and everybody was watching," he said.

Benefits from Apollo: the Dustbuster?

Looking back, Robinson marvels at how everything came together.


"It was an amazing achievement, especially when you consider how fast it was done and how much technology had to be invented, and they just did it," he said.

NASA had to invent new technology to land humans on the moon for the Apollo 11 and subsequent missions. Dozens of innovations were developed, later improved upon and are still being used today.

For instance, NASA's "cool suit" technology developed for astronauts is used by hazardous-material workers and firefighters.

Medical technology that originated in the Apollo missions was used to create a programmable system where doctors communicate with pacemakers through wireless signals.

Some inventions have become household commodities.

NASA was an early developer of cordless devices, which today are almost taken for granted in electric screwdrivers and drills.

Apollo astronauts used a portable drill to take core samples below the moon's surface. The device was optimized for power consumption, according to NASA, and Black & Decker, a manufacturing company, later refined the technology into a cordless handheld vacuum, the Dustbuster.

What's happened since? 

The Apollo program included multiple launches to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


A total of 12 men would walk on the moon. The "Last Man on the Moon" was Eugene Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

In the last decade or so, there have been a number of smaller, unmanned missions such as satellites and orbiters.

One of the highest profile missions was the 2009 launch of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The minivan-size spacecraft is designed to help lay the groundwork for the eventual return of astronauts to the moon by identifying safe landing sites. A science team led by ASU's Robinson oversees the cameras aboard the orbiter.

Hundreds of images are downloaded daily with the goal of mapping the entire moon at the camera's science operations center on ASU's Tempe campus.

"We’re getting fairly close to that goal. We really hope that the spacecraft can hang on another three or four years," Robinson said.

Will we return to the moon?

A proposal earlier this year by the Trump administration sought to add humans to a test flight of the Space Launch System, a megarocket scheduled to travel around the moon and back in 2019.

But NASA officials concluded that while the space agency was technically capable of adding the crew, it would be too costly and represent too much risk.

China has plans for an unmanned, sample-return mission on the moon's far side.

ASU has some of the country's notable planetary scientists, who are involved in NASA missions on Mars, the moon and to distant asteroids.

Two future unmanned moon missions have ties to the university.

ASU scientists are involved in a project, the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, to build and operate a satellite that will orbit the moon. The shoebox-size satellite is part of a new generation of miniature, lower-cost spacecraft called “CubeSat” missions.

The satellite will target the moon's South Pole with the goal of producing a detailed map of the moon's water deposits. Launch is slated for 2018.

NASA announced in April that a camera to be developed by ASU's Robinson and Malin Space Science Systems was selected for an orbiter that will launch in the next couple of years by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.

Called the ShadowCam, the narrow-angle camera will be capable of capturing images in the moon's shadowed craters, something the cameras on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter are unable to do.

No human trips to the moon by the U.S. are currently slated.

Robinson envisions a time when astronauts will walk on the moon again. This time, they will have a map of the moon, probably on a flexible panel attached to their sleeves.

And that map will be based on the images now being collected by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras.

"It's very exciting what we're doing here," Robinson said. "And I feel lucky every day when I get up and come into work."

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8072 or anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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