In 1969, Neil Armstrong said that his first step on the moon was a "giant leap for mankind."
Residents, such as Sharlean Johnson, Margaret McCaffrey and Leona Bakken, of the Good Samaritan in East Grand Forks who remembered the moon landing knew that the missions were of scientific importance but did not have much familiarity with what was learned or what came before the landing.
They were right; the Apollo missions and other forms of space exploration have yielded results beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams, but what else did these giant leaps help teach humanity?
The space race
The journey into outer space truly began in 1949, the year that gave humankind the first human-made object in space: the Bumper-WAC. It climbed to an altitude of 244 miles before dropping back to Earth.
However, what is now called the space race, a Cold War battle for the stars between the United States and the Soviet Union, truly began in the 1950s. The Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957. The Soviet Union followed up on its success by sending Laika, a dog, into orbit. Later, the Luna 1 completed the first successful flyby of the moon in 1959. The Soviet Union won the battle to send the first human into the U.S. by sending Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The Soviet Union’s Luna 2 also beat the U.S. by becoming the first human-made object to touch the moon.
In 1962, John F. Kennedy gave his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, and, after years of falling behind its Cold War rival’s space efforts, the U.S. had its first unequivocal success in 1964, when Ranger 7 sent back photos of the moon’s surface before crashing. This was followed by Surveyor 1 in 1966, which completed a successful soft landing. The U.S. began surveying the moon’s surface in 1966 and completed a final survey in 1968.
Apollo 8 became the first mission to take humans to the moon, and, during this December 1968 mission, humans saw Earth rise over the lunar horizon the first time.
A mere six months later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon, finally putting an end to the space race. But, this event brought more to the world than just confidence to Americans.
"We've had to change phrases for impossible," said Michael Gaffey, a professor of space studies at the University of North Dakota. "Reaching for the moon was no longer impossible."
What the Apollo missions taught humanity
“We came away (from the Apollo missions) with a much better understanding of the moon and the Earth-moon system,” said Gaffey, who teaches graduate courses on life in the universe, Mars and meteors and comets.
Gaffey said the missions, which brought back samples from the moon's surface, taught scientists that the moon had greatly affected the Earth during its development. Billions of years ago, the Earth had an eight-hour day that the moon extended to a 24-hour one. Scientists also learned more about how the Earth and moon were formed.
Analyzing rocks on the lunar surface “told us about the origin of the moon and the stabilization of the solar system,” Gaffey said. “Before stabilization, rogue planets went around the sun without a regular orbit and crashed into each other. Thankfully, that’s not what happens now.”
Researching the moon rocks led to the giant-impact hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the moon formed out of the debris that came from the impact between Earth and a Mars-sized planet.
The rocks also showed scientists that lunar rocks had been exposed to temperatures so high that nearly all the zinc and mercury had evaporated, Gaffey said. Humans also discovered that the moon dates back to 4.3 to 4.5 billion years ago, with volcanic activity not stopping until about 3.5 billion years ago.
All of this research helped humans determine when life could have begun on Earth, according to Gaffey. Collisions from meteorites would have sterilized the planet and made it uninhabitable, and by analyzing the moon, scientists were able to figure out when these collisions slowed.
In 1969, NASA’s budget made up about 2.3% of the federal budget, but since then, it has dropped down to slightly less than half a percent.
“Point is that what we learned from those mission -- it cost a fair amount -- but has increased our understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe,” Gaffey said. “It was a good deal.”
On the lookout for life
Exploration did not just lead to the analysis of moon rocks; scientists eventually discovered ice on the moon.
Despite this ice, Gaffey said running water is not much of a possibility because the daytime temperature on the moon can reach over 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Gaffey also said that Mars is a more likely candidate for supporting life.
Unlike the moon, Mars has ice at more than just the poles. More than 80% of the Martian surface has a high concentration of hydrogen in the top 2 meters, according to Gaffey.
“The only real way to store that hydrogen in the soil would be water-ice,” Gaffey said. “A complex organic compound would be the other option, but that’s really unlikely.”
The only places on Mars that seem to be dry are on the Martian volcanoes.
But it’s not just the ice in the soil that makes Mars intriguing to researchers.
The second Curiosity Rover landed in a large crater with a tall mountain at the center. The rover analyzed the sedimentary deposits at the bottom of the mountain and found that those layers were likely laid down when Mars was wet.
“If you took living bacteria and put them there (during that time), they would survive,” Gaffey said. “Whether it (life) would arise on its own is another story.”
Now, Gaffey said, scientists are designing experiments and methods that could detect fossils or living organisms. He said that there are three major options regarding life on Mars.
One: There is no and has never been life on Mars. In this case, Gaffey said that life may be less common in the universe than scientists once thought.
Two: There is or has been life on Mars that has a similar genetic code to organisms on Earth. In this case, Gaffey said there is likely a common ancestor and that bacteria may have traveled from Earth to Mars or vice versa billions of years ago on a meteor.
Three: There is or has been life on Mars, but it has a different genetic code or structure than we see on Earth. Gaffey said that this would mean that life could be a “relatively common phenomenon.”
But, it wasn’t just water on other planets that made scientists realize life could be more abundant in the universe than originally thought.
“The biggest change in how we view life is probably how many extremophiles there are,” Gaffey said. “There are organisms that can live in boiling water; there are organisms that can life inside bleach and battery acid; there are organisms that can live inside nuclear reactors ... Some species of bacteria can withstand 5 million times the radiation that would kill a mammal.”
Ultimately, these discoveries led to biologists opening up the environments in which life can exist. Before, the Goldilocks Zone was believed to be the only place life can survive. The Goldilocks Zone, which the Earth resides within, is the distance from a star where a planet is neither too close or too far from the star to create relatively mild climate.
Now, scientists are looking not just to Mars but other celestial bodies in the solar system, including Europa and Enceladus, one of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons, respectively, because both likely have liquid water.
“Most of us think that life is very common,” Gaffey said. “We’ll be very surprised if it isn’t, but we have to research.”