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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Apollo 11 at 50

By Phil Plait
We choose to go to the Moon… Credit: NASA

Tomorrow — July 20, 2019 — is the 50th anniversary of the moment a human being first stepped foot on the Moon.

I was four years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. I barely remember the event; to be honest I was so young I can't be sure if my memory is from what I actually saw and heard, or a pastiche of things I've learned since then. Memory can be faulty… but two years later my family went to Florida to watch the Apollo 15 launch, and much of that memory is clearer.

This had a profound impact on my life. I still don't know to this day if I loved these missions because I already loved science and science fiction, or if Apollo helped focus my attention on those topics. Probably a little bit of both. My whole young life was centered on space, space travel, and astronomy, whether it was fact or fiction.

Come to think of it, that's still the case.

My interest in Apollo was rejuvenated in the year 2000 when I was researching it for a chapter in my first book Bad Astronomy; the topic was debunking the ridiculous conspiracy theory that NASA faked the missions. Then Fox television aired a truly repugnant one-hour special called "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" I gleefully debunked that chuckleheaded nonsense point by point on my website… which in some ways helped launch my career as a science communicator.

So, in many ways, I’m pretty conflicted on this topic. I wish that conspiracy theory never existed, but on the other hand, here I am today because of it.

But the other positive note is that I learned a vast amount about Apollo, the individual missions, the engineering, and the science behind it all. That in turn means discovering the fun stories, the less-told stories, the ones you may not have heard.

That came in handy recently, because I contributed to a short series of podcasts by SYFY WIRE called “Revisiting Apollo 11: Five Untold Stories” (also available on Spotify and Stitcher), talking about some of these tales. How did NASA design the flag hardware Armstrong and Aldrin planted on the Moon? Why did Armstrong have to take manual control of the lunar module moments before touching down? What was Michael Collins doing and thinking as he orbited the Moon for a day, the most isolated man in human history?

The episodes are narrated by Karama Horne (aka TheBlerdGurl), and feature interviews with me about the specifics of the mission. It was fun to prep for this and reread all my notes from over the years, the copious bookmarked webpages in my browser about Apollo 11, the project in general, and the transcripts of the mission, too. I spent a lot of time reading about Apollo back in the day when my main job seemed to be debunking Moon Hoax goofballs (and which I still occasionally do), so it's nice to talk positively about the Apollo project.

And about that…

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this anniversary, of course. 50 years… a lot has happened since then. Five more crewed landings on the Moon, Apollo-Soyuz, the Shuttle, the International Space Station, and so many missions to other planets, moons, asteroids, and comets… and of course some failures that led to loss of missions and astronauts' lives.

I've already written so much about all this, and to be honest my feelings haven't changed much since then. So, to that end, let me point you to some of the articles that I’ve penned over the years about our exploration of space. This list can't possibly be complete, but it should give you some things to mull over on Saturday as you contemplate what is, arguably, a moment that divided all of history into the time before humans set foot on an alien world, and the time after.

Per ardua, ad astra.

Revisiting Apollo 11, Episode 1: "A Troubled Descent" 

Episode 2: "The Hardest Task"

Episode 3: "The Photo of Everything"

Episode 4: "The Final Hurdle - Quarantine"

Episode 5: "Contingency"