Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA, Neil Armstrong (public domain)

50 years since the Moon landing – Expert Reaction

July 21 (NZT) will mark 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon.

It was 8.17pm on July 20, 1969 (UTC) when the US spacecraft Apollo Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the Moon’s surface, allowing the two astronauts to collect space material and deploy equipment that is still providing valuable insights to scientists today.

The SMC asked experts to reflect on the significance of the Moon landing, share any personal memories and discuss why conspiracy theories about it persist. 

Dr Duncan Steel, space scientist, Xerra Earth Observation Institute, comments:

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Apollo programme was pivotal in motivating me to work in space science.
“Although I was aware of earlier manned projects (Mercury, Gemini) earlier in the 1960s, my first definite memory of a specific mission was when Apollo 8 circuited the Moon in a flight over Christmas 1968. At that time I was 13, and living in England. This was also the first time I realised that I had an interest in space above that shown by most people: I was astonished when folk asked me about the mission, and I replied that it was far further than any previous manned spaceflight, and my questioners apparently had no understanding of this.

“I do recall the Apollo 10 mission, and finding it bizarre that they would go so close to the lunar surface, and yet not land!

“My main memory of Apollo 11 is seeing Armstrong and then Aldrin step out onto the lunar surface in grainy black-and-white live TV in the early hours at my grandmother’s house. Later I have written about which radio antenna in Australia was used for those first pictures; it was not The Dish as depicted in the movie starring Sam Neill!

“Over the past 35 years I have spent much time as a Visiting Research Scientist at NASA-Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, usually a month or two each year. Mostly I have worked there on comets; planning missions to Mars, Europa and Enceladus; the analysis of meteoroid and dust impacts on satellites; and the problem of orbiting space debris.

“I have worked also for the European Space Agency, based in Sweden, on the Giotto mission to Comet Halley and also the analysis of meteoroid streams derived from asteroids and comets.”

No conflict of interest.

Alan Gilmore, Honorary Research Associate, School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“1969 was my first year in full-time work after graduating from university. I dimly recall hearing the Apollo landing (Monday July 21st at 8:18 NZST) on the radio before going to work: “This is Tranquility base. The Eagle has landed” and a reply from Mission Control about a bunch of guys there turning blue holding their breaths.

“It had taken Neil Armstrong longer than expected to find a suitable landing place while the telemetry was sending back erroneous readings of the lander’s remaining fuel. I took my transistor radio to work and listened to the relay through the afternoon. There was a long interval while Armstrong and Aldrin struggled into their spacesuits. Someone quipped that the two men getting into space suits in the small landing module was like two women getting dressed in ball gowns in a telephone box. According to my diary, Armstrong stepped onto the Moon at 2:57 pm NZST. I can’t exactly recall hearing of Armstrong’s descent of the ladder or his famous words but I must have.

“The TV from the Moon was picked up by the Parks radio telescope, or similar, in Australia. A RNZAF Canberra bomber flew the film to NZ for broadcast on the evening TV news, then at 7pm. There wasn’t much to see. Just a blurry view from a camera placed on the the underside of the lander with the ladder in view and lots of harsh shadows. We saw a silhouette of Armstrong descending the ladder. Given that it was direct from the Moon we thought it amazing at the time.

“I can’t say that the landing had any personal impact on me. I had been involved with NZ astronomy over the previous decade, so had followed the Apollo programme with some interest. The results from the Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo programme gave a whole new chronology to the evolution of the inner Solar System, but that took a lot of work over many years.

“At the end of 1969, I applied for a job at the Carter Observatory and started there in 1970. The next five years at Carter set us (Pam Kilmartin and me) on a track that we continue to follow. I built a gadget that allowed photography of moving objects — comets and asteroids — with Carter’s 16-inch telescope. Thanks to contacts at what was then the DSIR’s Physics & Engineering Laboratory (now Callaghan Innovation) in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, we got access to a machine to measure the resulting photos. Pam, earlier an amateur astronomer, joined the Observatory as Librarian and Information Officer in 1973. Together we set up a programme of tracking southern comets and asteroids. (We married in 1974.) We continue tracking comets and near-Earth asteroids today, five years into retirement, with a telescope at the University of Canterbury’s Mt John Observatory and at our home observatory in Lake Tekapo village.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Richard Easther, Head of Department, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, comments:

“One of my earliest memories is standing with my father on the balcony of my grandmother’s house in Auckland. ‘Ma’s House’ had a spectacular view north toward Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, and the moon was visible in the early evening sky. Following my eye, my father pointed and said, ‘I think there are people there at the moment’.

“I would love to describe this as a moment of father-son bonding that lit my lifelong passion for astronomy, but doing so would take me far from the truth. In fact, my love of astronomy must have already been well aflame because my actual recollection is that this was the first time I saw my father – a man frequently summoned to the hospital to tend the sick, who could fix any broken toy and who was able to split logs with an axe – as imperfect, fallible and human. How could any adult, I wondered, not know exactly how many people were standing on that pale little ball at any moment?

“My memory is that this happened as part of a pre-Christmas visit. Looking at the list of Apollo landings the only one that took place in any December was the last mission, Apollo 17, in 1972, just after my sixth birthday. It was obvious at the time that there would be hiatus in lunar travel after Apollo 17. Despite that, it is a shock to realise that I am in my early 50s and that no one significantly younger than me can have a clear memory of a moment when human beings stood on another world. Ever since that day there have always been precisely zero people standing on the surface of the moon.

“The Apollo landings took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, and were the United States’ winning entry in a race with the Soviet Union, a competition animated by superpower rivalry. But they remain a story of commitment, courage, teamwork and vision, a literal moonshot that shines as a moment of optimism and purpose. Perhaps even more so when you set it against the wider turmoil of the 1960s. I am not the first person to say this, but before Apollo ‘flying to the moon’ was a byword for an impossible, ridiculous dream – afterwards it was a metaphor for what can be done when we set ourselves to achieve a lofty goal.

“Sooner or later we will go back. Several countries and even SpaceX, a private company, are developing concrete plans to return human beings to the Moon. However, even if they keep to their optimistic schedules those new voyages are still a few years off. That said the Apollo missions pushed their 1960s technology to the absolute limit. The final missions spent several days on the lunar surface but they would have been hard-pressed to provide the foundation for a permanent lunar base. If it does seem like we have had an unduly long wait, it is probably worth recalling that after the first trips to the South Pole — with sleds pulled by men and dogs — it was close to 50 years before human beings again stood at 90 degrees south. Those subsequent visits were made with tractors and planes, but marked the beginning of a permanent human presence at the Pole.

“Likewise, when humans do go back to the Moon, they will do so using spacecraft and rockets that have been developed to the point where lunar travel can conceivably become routine. Consequently, in a decade or two, a permanent human presence on the Moon could well have developed to the point where even the best-informed parents might be forgiven for not knowing exactly how many people are standing on the Moon at any given moment.”

Dr M. R. X Dentith, Teaching Fellow, University of Waikato, comments:

“Conspiracy theories surrounding the Moon Landing (and, indeed, the entire Apollo programme) are a perennial favourite among conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe. It’s also not all that unusual to question whether we went to the Moon, simply for the sheer fact that having apparently gone there, we really haven’t been back. That is, one of the reasons people are suspicious about the NASA-led space programme generally is that it seems to have fizzled out quite quickly.

“The reality is that the space programme in the 60s and 70s was both a (literal) moonshot promised by a president whose death at the hands of an assassin (an event host to its own host of conspiracy theories) meant it was pursued partially to honour JFK, but also in part to display American cultural supremacy.

“After all, the US was in a Cold War with the USSR (whose own space programme had achieved a number of firsts) and thus it is not surprising (although it was unfortunate) that once the Apollo missions were shown to be successful, and the Cold War over, going back to the Moon turned out to be not much of a priority.

“But possibly the most telling reason as to why we should think that the Apollo missions were a success is the Soviets themselves. Given the nature of the Cold War, where both sides had spies embedded in each other’s agencies, the fact the Kremlin never cast doubt as to the veracity of the Moon landing either means Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin really did step foot on the lunar surface… Or the US and Soviet space programmes were both elaborate fakes, with neither side being willing to expose the other, lest they be exposed themselves.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Conspiracy theories have, after decades of neglect, become something of an in-thing for psychological researchers to investigate in recent years.

“I’ve been tracking them among New Zealanders for more than a decade now, and two things that are important to note are (a) that conspiracies do happen so they’re not automatically silly things to believe in, and (b) many of us believe at least one thing that might be considered a ‘conspiracy theory’ but few of us, perhaps less than 5 per cent can be thought of as ‘conspiracy theorists’ – people who believe in a bunch of conspiracies.

“While the stereotype of the conspiracy theorist suggests they’re paranoid loons, there’s not a lot of support for that. Among the reasons that have been suggested for believing in conspiracies are the idea that they’re a way of making sense of crappy things that feel outside of our control.

“In a 2008 study of superstitious and conspiracy beliefs involving around 6,000 New Zealanders just over one in five participants said they thought that NASA faked the moon landings, and one in seven said they weren’t sure. When my students John Kerr, Samantha Stanley and I followed this up a few months ago in a survey marketed as focusing on science, the much lower and corresponding percentages were 9% and 7% respectively. The ‘true’ percentage of New Zealanders who believe they were faked will be somewhere between 9% and 21%, but I reckon it will spike as we get closer to the anniversary as people are reminded of both the event itself, and the theories around it. One of the reasons I think this conspiracy will continue to be current is that it’s a long time ago! If we could do it fifty years ago with computers less powerful than my cellphone, why haven’t we done it since?

“What sort of evidence would it take to ‘disprove’ it? Nothing! One of the things about conspiracy theories is that evidence can always be explained away as part of the conspiracy. When actor Ozzy Davis says, in the movie Bubba Ho-Tep, that he is really JFK exiled to an old folks home, his friend (Elvis, played by Bruce Campbell) responds that, um, JFK wasn’t black. Davis/JFK replies ‘that’s how good they are’.”

No conflict of interest.