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One Giant Leap for Mankind by Balázs Hompoth

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One Giant Leap for Mankind

Photo: shutterstock

Three astronauts arrived on the Moon on July 20, 1969, forever inscribing it in the annals of history as the day that marks one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong embarked on their 384-thousand-kilometre journey to the Moon just four days prior to the landing. Many argue and debate about the necessity of space exploration, but it is unquestionable that the desire to expand the boundaries of what we know has provided great benefits to our societies.

Background and Context

Space was the latest theatre for fighting the Cold War

The project had been prompted by the multifaceted Cold War race between the US and the Soviet Union which the Soviets were winning, as they had sent the first man into space just months prior to President Kennedy’s declaration about space exploration. Space was the latest theatre for fighting the Cold War and provided the United States an opportunity to prove the superiority of free and democratic societies over Soviet autocracy.

Kennedy stated in a 1961 declaration that the United States needed ‘to take a clearly leading role in space achievement’ and ‘commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth.’

To achieve the goal of taking the lead in space exploration, Congress allocated billions of dollars in funding for NASA’s Apollo lunar landing program.

It took eight years of work, sacrifice and the loss of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire, but Kennedy’s goal was finally realized when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon in 1969.

Deservedly so, the stories of the Apollo 11 crew of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were written into the history books, but the contribution of the hundreds of thousands of workers who had laid the foundation for and made the moon landing possible should not be forgotten either.

The Staggering Challenge

Kennedy was confident: ‘We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win,’ he told a crowd of 40 thousand at Rice University.

Despite Kennedy’s seemingly thunderous confidence, those who worked on the program were concerned about the relatively short time frame of his plans.

John Tribe, who worked on the Atlas rockets, was stunned by the president’s challenge. ‘We were frequently back in those days watching vehicles blow up. About every third vehicle didn’t make it,’ Tribe recounted. ‘It was a daunting prospect to think we are going to do this in nine years,’ he added.

Hungarian Contribution

A large number of non-Americans worked on Moon the project, such as Ferenc Pavlics

As much as the United States likes to claim space exploration achievements as its own, similarly to the James Webb Space Telescope, a large number of non-Americans worked on Moon the project, such as Ferenc Pavlics, the developer of the Lunar Rovers. As many of the most outstanding minds of the era, Pavlics was also forced to seek a career abroad due to the events of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

He and his wife decided to settle in the US, where he was hired to work for General Motors (GM) five days after his arrival, despite not knowing a single word of English, which goes to show how brilliant a mind he was. He was appointed to a new laboratory to study vehicle-soil interactions at GM.

This task was similar to what the development of NASA’s Lunar Rovers required. Naturally, Pavlics and GM contacted NASA because the project was not only exciting and interesting, but vital to the success of the Apollo program.

Not only did Pavlics head the Lunar Rover program, the personnel of which consisted of 400 people at its height, maintaining excellent concordance within the team in order to achieve the ultimate goal, but he was also fortunate enough to train the astronauts to use and drive the rovers.

According to Pavlics, ‘Everybody was so interested in space exploration back then that all of my co-workers, the whole team worked wholeheartedly.’ Everybody agreed that this project was vital and a necessity.

The Necessity of Space Exploration

A common argument against space exploration is that it has no tangible benefit to humanity and that we should focus our efforts on solving the problems here on Earth. At first glance this may seem to make sense, but it can be easily disproven.

Beyond human’s existential desire to explore and the inherently amazing and awe-inspiring nature of space, galactic exploration allows us to prove or disprove scientific theories developed on Earth. Studying the solar system has brought us crucial insight into how gravity, the magnetosphere, the atmosphere, and fluid dynamics work.

Many innovations came directly from space exploration

Those who have no interest or care for the scientific field should be aware that many innovations in biology, medicine and infrastructure came directly from space exploration. Applications that most of us enjoy in our daily lives, such as the ceramic coatings of kitchen appliances, air purification systems, cordless devices and smoke detectors are by-products of space exploration.

This is not to say that problems here on earth should be ignored in favour of space exploration, but rather that solving problems down here is not mutually exclusive with space exploration, and it can often prove to provide the solutions to them.

As Neil Armstrong put it when he stepped on the Moon, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ 53 years after the fact, it can be safely said that he was indeed right. Even in the midst of the Cold War, scientists from all over the world were able to come together and accomplish what undoubtedly ranks among the most important achievements of mankind.

Balázs Hompoth is a graduate of Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPKE). He majored in English and minored in Media and Communications with a special interest in journalism.