50 years since man’s ‘greatest achievement’

Men on the Moon: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent around two hours exploring the surface.

Was the Moon landing the greatest scientific achievement of all time? Fifty years ago, humans walked on the Moon for the first time — using less computing power than the average smartphone.

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20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong had travelled 240,000 miles in 76 hours to land on the surface of the Moon. Millions were watching back home as he stepped out of the lunar lander and uttered some of the most famous words in history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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Getting there was not easy. It took about a decade for 400,000 engineers and scientists to create the technology for the Apollo space programme.

At the time, computers were still new. The machines analysing the mission at NASA headquarters were big enough to fill a room. On board Armstrong’s spacecraft, the “Apollo Guidance Computer” was the size and shape of a suitcase. It was the most advanced “miniature” computer in the world. It navigated and landed the spacecraft using just four kilobytes of memory — that’s about 250,000 times less than a smartphone.

It was all worth it. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the Moon. Meanwhile, third crew member Michael Collins waited in the spacecraft, orbiting the Moon. He got them all home safely.

Was it the greatest scientific achievement of all time?

Some say…

It was. Sending people to the Moon was the most ambitious project that humanity ever tried in history. It required thousands of people working on complicated tasks that had never been done before, and its success brought the whole world together in wonder. The fact that we achieved it with such early computing technology is, frankly, mind-boggling.

Others think…

The greatest scientific achievement happened in 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick (with help from Rosalind Franklin) discovered the structure of DNA. Understanding the building blocks of life has led to many medical breakthroughs in the decades since, and it will save countless lives in the future. We should be most proud of this milestone.

You Decide

  1. What is humanity’s greatest achievement so far?

Activities

  1. If you were given the chance to interview Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins, who are both still alive, what three questions would you ask them?

Some People Say...

“I was elated, ecstatic and extremely surprised that we were successful.”

Neil Armstrong, on his first moments on the Moon

What do you think?

Word Watch

Lunar lander
Called the Eagle, this is the spacecraft which landed on the Moon’s surface.
Engineers
People who design or build machines.
Apollo
The mission was named after the ancient Greek God.
NASA
The USA’s space agency, stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Navigated
Directed the spacecraft’s journey.
Kilobytes
A “byte” is a unit of digital information. There are 1,000 bytes in a kilobyte.
DNA
The molecule which contains all of the genetic code for a living thing.
Ecstatic
Extremely happy.

Subjects

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