The Scientific Legacy of the Apollo 11 Mission

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Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin posed for a portrait wearing their spacesuits without their helmets.Neil Armstrong, Michael C

Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

Courtesy of NASA


On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the Moon’s near-black, powdery surface as an estimated 600 million people back on Earth watched the historic moment live on television.

 

Neil Armstrong, fully enclosed in a bulky space suit and helmet, takes a step on the surface of the moon.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to step foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969, followed by crew member Buzz Aldrin.

Courtesy of NASA


Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious goal, set in 1961, to land a crewed spacecraft on the Moon and return to Earth. Apollo 11, which included Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, achieved this feat in just over eight days, traveling a total of 953,054 miles.

The journey—and live audio and video transmission, courtesy of a custom low-light camera from Westinghouse Electric’s Aerospace Division—was an astounding technological achievement. But the scientific results and specimens from Armstrong and Aldrin’s 21-hour-and-36-minute stay on the Moon produced invaluable data and fueled research long after the mission was over.

 

Buzz Aldrin wears a bulky space suit and helmet and stands on the surface of the moon next to a scientific instrument.

While on the Moon’s surface, Aldrin deployed instruments to measure the distance from the Moon to the Earth, as well as to analyze the chemical composition of solar wind and the to measure the Moon’s seismic activity.

Courtesy of NASA


Lunar Experiments

After the Lunar Module landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, Aldrin and Armstrong conducted a series of landmark scientific experiments. Aldrin deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP), which included instruments for several tests to be left on the lunar surface. The Passive Seismic Experiment contained seismometers to measure moonquakes or effects of meteoroid and other impacts on the Moon. The Laser Ranging Retroreflector allowed for a precise measurement of the distance between Earth and the Moon, obtained by timing how long it took for a laser beam to travel from Earth to the lunar surface and back. Another experiment, created by Swiss scientists, collected solar-wind particles so that researchers could analyze the composition of solar wind. The team also recorded extensive observations of the lunar surface, photographed the terrain and each other, and gathered 22 kilograms of rock, soil, and dust samples—all in the course of approximately two hours.

 

A sample of lunar rock.

During the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong collected samples of lunar-surface material. This moon rock from the Apollo 16 mission is now on view in the Museum’s Ross Hall of Meteorites. 

©AMNH


Lasting Legacy

Research based on the results and materials gathered thanks to the Apollo 11 mission continues to this day. One of the instruments left on the surface—the Laser Ranging Retroreflector—allowed scientists to collect data for decades after Apollo 11’s return to Earth. Findings include that the Moon is moving farther away from Earth, probably has a liquid core, and that the universal force of gravity is stable.

Back on Earth, the material collected by Apollo 11 crew immediately set off a research race. By late January 1970, just six months after the historic Moon landing, Science published a special issue–four times the size of a regular edition—with some of the earliest scientific findings made possible by Apollo 11. To whip the historic volume into shape, researchers had had only three months to study the new lunar material before submitting their articles for review, and Science had sent a team of editors to Houston to work with scientists as they finalized drafts.

 

Moon Rocks at the Museum

In November 1969, as Science was reviewing manuscripts, the Museum received a special delivery from NASA: a glass dome filled with nitrogen, with a lunar rock inside.

According to The New York Times, the timing of the arrival hadn’t been shared with the Museum, and when the specimen was delivered on Saturday morning, a makeshift display case had to be arranged. The following day, “a tiny piece of the Moon drew the largest crowd in the 100-year history of the American Museum of Natural History,” the paper reported: 42,195 people, or three times the size of the regular Sunday crowd. The Museum soon organized a more elaborate display case with educational materials and magnifying glasses for the Moon rock’s two-and-a-half month stay.

 

Two children look at a rock in a glass display case with a label reading Apollo II Lunar Rock.

In November 1969, a moon rock sample from the Apollo 11 mission was displayed in the Hayden Planetarium, resulting in record attendance.

A. Singer/© AMNH


Today, the Museum is home to four Moon rocks collected during the Apollo lunar missions, though none from Apollo 11. On the first floor of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, near the entrance to the Hayden Planetarium dome, visitors can see a basalt sample collected on the lunar surface by astronauts David Scott and James Irwin on the Apollo 15 mission. More Moon rocks are on view in the Ross Hall of Meteorites, including two samples of mare basalt from the Apollo 14  and Apollo 17  missions and an Apollo 16 sample of anorthosite breccia, formed by fragmented rock that was fused together by the pressure and heat of an asteroid impact. 

And for a different kind of artifact from the 1969 Moon landing, visitors can peruse the photo exhibit Full Moon: Apollo Mission Photographs of the Lunar Landing in the Rose Center for Earth and Space. The exhibit features digital reproductions from NASA’s photographic archive—including Aldrin’s shot of footprints in the soil of Mare Tranquillitatis.