Six-year-old Alyssa Goodman found watching astronauts walk on the moon on TV astonishing. To 8-year-old Dimitar Sasselov, his parents’ excitement over the 30-second clip of Neil Armstrong’s walk belied the downplay it received in Soviet-era Bulgaria. And to Irwin Shapiro, then an MIT physics professor, the technical achievement of getting Armstrong there outshone the walk itself.
Three Harvard astronomers shared recollections of humankind’s first walk on the moon 50 years ago Saturday, as well as their thoughts on its wide-ranging legacy.
Life’s highest achievement
Sasselov, Phillips Professor of Astronomy and head of Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative, was a young boy growing up on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast in 1969. He was more interested in the beach than in space then. But his parents made sure he knew about, and watched, the landing — even though the government minimized the Cold War achievement.
Now Sasselov’s view is likely best described as cosmic. Life in the universe is probably uncommon, he says, and where it exists it is largely made up of microbes, as it was for most of its history on Earth. For those microbes to have given rise to complex life, and for that complex life — along with microbial hitchhikers — to intentionally travel to another celestial body, and back, has to be considered a milestone not just for one species but for all of life.
“Here you have, 4 billion years after the creation of the Earth biosphere, a representative … [who] by their own volition and their own design made it beyond the planet, which is the root of the biosphere, to go to another celestial body, stay there, and then return safely back to where they came from,” Sasselov said. “That for sure has never happened before in the history of the solar system.”
What is possible to achieve
Goodman, the Robert Wheeler Wilson Professor of Applied Astronomy and co-director for science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, recalls sitting on her parents’ bed in their home on Long Island and being amazed that Armstrong was walking on “that thing in the sky” at that very moment.
To her, the moon landings are an example of what it is possible for humans to achieve when vision, political will, financial wherewithal, and technical prowess all pull toward a single goal. Goodman acknowledged that such unified purpose is rare and has been missing in the decades since. Other examples, real and potential, are the Manhattan Project, which led to the first atomic bomb, and, she hopes, a project to find a solution to climate change in the years to come.