A photo released by NASA shows astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission, 20 July 1969. Photo: AFP

Memories fade as we get older, yet I recall with great clarity US president John F Kennedy’s moon-shot speech to a crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962. “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,” Kennedy said.

His words helped usher in the space age as we now know it. As the US looks back at its past, and ahead to its next great leap, this Saturday the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other institutions around the world are turning their eyes skyward to commemorate the 50th anniversary of man’s first lunar landing on July 20, 1969.

After Kennedy’s call for human exploration of the moon, nearly all of NASA’s space efforts turned toward the goal of a lunar landing. Scientific missions were mounted to study the moon with probes before advancing with human exploration. Concurrent with the scientific study of the moon, human exploration of space began, with Project Mercury and the Gemini Program serving as learning experiences in preparation for trips to the moon. All of these efforts fed into the Apollo Program, which was redefined and accelerated soon after Kennedy’s 1961 speech before a joint session of Congress. Under Apollo, NASA took the final steps toward fulfilling the president’s bold commitment.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy had already made an astonishing announcement: He wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The primary objective of Apollo 11 was to achieve JFK’s goal of performing a crewed lunar landing followed by a safe return to Earth. Additional aims included scientific explorations by the lunar-module crew, and deployment of a television camera to transmit signals to Earth. The Apollo 11 craft launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, carrying Commander Neil Armstrong, lunar-module pilot Edwin Aldrin and command-module pilot Michael Collins.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, the world heard Armstrong say his oft-quoted words as he became the first man to step on the moon’s surface: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” While Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Collins orbited above in the command module. Apollo 11 represented the culmination of decades of work, and remains one of man’s most noteworthy technical and engineering achievements.

Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in US history, an endeavor that demonstrated both the technological virtuosity and economic might of the United States

Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in US history, an endeavor that demonstrated both the technological virtuosity and economic might of the United States. This weekend’s anniversary is a good time to reflect on what made the achievement so historic.

First, Apollo 11 proved that Kennedy was right. After his assassination in 1963, there is no greater legacy attributed to John F Kennedy than his promise to put men on the moon. Less than six years after his death, we Americans did just that. And we brought them back safely, just as he had promised.

Apollo 11 was a triumph of management in meeting enormously difficult systems engineering challenges and technological integration requirements. In doing so, it rapidly accelerated the pace of technological development worldwide. The work of NASA engineers at the time caused a dramatic shift in electronics and computing systems. Without their work in the 1960s, you probably wouldn’t have a tablet or laptop computer.

A vital portion of the Apollo program was dedicated to scientific research. Apollo taught us a lot, and not just about the moon.

Apollo 11 motivated research in multiple spheres and its scientific breakthroughs aroused endless curiosity about space and space exploration. It taught us about the composition of the moon and it gave us the first perspective of the Earth from space. Our daily lives now benefit from technological know-how born of space exploration.

The first moon landing turned science fiction into reality. Science-fiction writers around the globe not only celebrated the fact, but immediately began looking for even more far-flung settings for their alien tales, such as Mars.

The first moon landing is important not just to Americans. It represented the first time that any human being had ever gone to another world beyond Earth. It was a monumental achievement that showed just what humanity could accomplish.

The journey of Apollo 11 was also significant because it was one of the first historic events to be broadcast worldwide. An estimated 600 million people watched the moon landing live on television.

This was an accomplishment that inspired an entire generation across the world to embrace science, astronomy and the exploration of outer space. This resulted in a massive increase in our knowledge about our solar system and what may lie beyond it.

Perhaps some of the most important findings came from the analysis of rocks brought back from the moon. The Apollo lunar flights ended in 1972, but the knowledge they helped us generate continues to grow. Every year, NASA receives about 60 research requests for moon-rock samples, resulting in about 525 samples being analyzed all over the world. Such analysis confirmed the theory that the moon formed from debris blown off the Earth by a collision with a Mars-sized object early in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.

The Apollo program may indeed have started out as a demonstration of America’s technological, economic and political superiority to Soviet communism, but today it is better known and rightfully revered for the continued relevance of the knowledge it brought back to Earth.

It was the realization of the dream of a revered president, and yet so much more than that.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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