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Apollo at 40: celebrating the first Moon landing

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316812main_08718NSA%20Logo_with_border-RGBPhoto courtesy of NASA

Forty years ago, on July 21, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Moon mission, became the first person to set foot on another world. This historic spaceflight marked the culmination of the so-called “Space Race”, one of the major Cold War propaganda battles between the United States and the USSR, which began in 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik 1. Stung by a string of Soviet firsts in space exploration, in May 1961 President Kennedy committed the United States to achieving a human landing on the Moon by 1970: a bold goal to set at a time when America’s first astronaut had made only a 15 minute sub-orbital flight just 3 weeks before.

When Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Eagle, with its crew, mission commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot Col. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, landed on the Moon, it effectively gave the United States the victory in the Space Race, as the Soviet Union had not been able to mount a successful lunar programme of its own. But the success of Apollo 11 was more than just a Cold War propaganda victory: when Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at 12.56pm Eastern Australian time and uttered his famous words “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for Mankind” he was fulfilling a centuries-old dream.

The desire to journey into the heavens is as old as humanity and the dream of travelling to the Moon has inspired poets and storytellers since Roman times. But it was not until the 20th Century that the technology to achieve spaceflight was developed and scientists and engineers looked forward to achieving this long-held goal. Apollo 11 therefore represented not just a Cold War political prize, it was also the accomplishment of an ancient Human aspiration: for the first time, people had left our home planet Earth and travelled to another world in the solar system.

Australia played an important part in all the Apollo missions, with NASA tracking stations at Carnarvon (WA) and Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla (ACT) providing vital communication links with the Apollo spacecraft. In particular, the Apollo 11 Moonwalk images broadcast to the world were received at Honeysuckle Creek
and the Parkes radio telescope.

Visitors to the museum’s Space exhibition can view a genuine lunar sample from the Apollo 16 mission, as well as a massive F-1 rocket motor (five of which were needed to launch the mighty Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts on their way to the Moon).

To mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, a selection of original contemporary space memorabilia from the museum’s collection is on display in the entry foyer until September.

Kerrie Dougherty
Curator of space technology