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Moon landing at 50: One giant leap for the scientific imagination

The first Moon landing was followed by rapid advances in aerospace research - with the prospect of stopovers at space hotels for tourists becoming likely in the none too distant future, writes Queen's University honorary fellow and retired Bombardier engineer Dr AK Kundu

Looking to the future: Dr AK Kundu
Looking to the future: Dr AK Kundu

Sunday, July 20, 1969. I was in Seattle working for the Boeing Company, watching in real time what can be summarised just as Armstrong said: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The quiet Sunday became the quietest, such as was never experienced before, when the nation was glued to black-and-white TVs to witness the first Moon landing by the Apollo 11 rocket.

The whole world was stunned by humans accessing the celestial body they had so revered - it was beyond imagination.

The impact of the event took time to sink in, and half a century later we have learnt to examine the potential of what space and the Moon can offer us.

Those involved in and observing the first flight by the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903, and the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, could not have foreseen what was to follow.

I wonder what the Wright brothers would think now if they saw an Airbus A380 taking off.

The significance of the first landing on the Moon can now be assessed in some detail.

Staying more than 200 days in confined space and zero gravity has been achieved by several astronauts, and all showed some form of health issues such as deterioration of skeletal tissue and eyesight problems.

The acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the Moon is about 1.625m/s2 (metres per second squared), as compared to the Earth's surface at 9.807m/s2 - which is about 16.6%. This offers a better condition than staying suspended in zero-gravity and a claustrophobic space orbit.

The technology for a permanent lunar base is available but awaits a lengthy process to materialise - predicted to be by 2050.

Multiple studies have confirmed that the Moon has water in abundance. When the problems of moondust, radiation and low gravity for a long stay are better understood, then safety can be assured and Moon habitation becomes a routine matter with self-supporting habitation.

Mining of rare lunar minerals, research on biology and special manufacturing in low gravity offer progress for humanity with commercial gains.

The Moon as a permanent satellite can advance navigational and communication technology with more robust and powerful set-ups.

Space tourism, with flights to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, has taken place with the cost in the range of US$200m to US$250m. Space tourism for recreational purposes has become closer. Adventure and entertainment associated with scientific learning and spiritual experiences are now reality.

Richard Branson has outlined his vision for Virgin Galactic's future. The first sub-orbital space tourism is likely to happen within a year. The cost is expected to be $200,000 per passenger.

There are already several private firms vying for space tourism, taking fare-paying tourists and offering inimitable orbital and suborbital flights, some at around $100,000 per passenger.

As success builds up, space tourism can expand into orbiting the Earth, for longer stopovers in space hotels, with the vehicular fare as low as the cost of a high-end luxury automobile.

There will be no lack of numbers as the cost will further reduce, as is typically associated with product development.

The Moon is just under 250,000 miles from Earth. Time to reach the Moon from Earth will depend on the type of vehicle used.

The old Apollo 11 took about three-and-a-half days to park at the lunar orbit for the Moon landing. A short-stay travel to the Moon and back can be carried out in less than 10 days.

What is achieved today is bound to recede into history, similar to the Jurassic period but in much shorter time. Our teenagers of today will witness the progress.

As an aerospace designer and academic, I think the nations must invest in space science and technology - if required, even through hardship. Recovering lost time will be costlier.

  • Dr AK Kundu FRAeS, FIMechE was a rocket scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (now a big player going to the Moon and Mars) during the early Seventies. He took rocket courses at Stanford University (with Professor Howard Seifert, Caltech scientist) and at the University of Michigan (with Professor Martin Sichel). Dr Kundu also taught rocket propulsion at Queen's University Belfast

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