Brian Odom, the historian at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama talks to SP’s Aviation’s Ayushee Chaudhary about Apollo 11 and more.
SP’s Aviation (SP’s): How has your experience been with NASA? Any particular missions or projects that you have been a part of?
Brian Odom (Brian): Yes, lots of things going on in NASA ever since I have been there which is since 2012. Some of the things right now are obviously for the Artemis program which is to be launched in 2024. Marshall Flight center has been responsible for design, development and manufacturing of the space launch system so that’s interesting in itself.
So that’s the kind of sustainability we want to have. These kind of things are expensive and a lot of resources are required. So if you can go and live on the Moon with the things that are there, finding the ability to produce energy, the ability to find water there and to harness that, it could really just change everything. Imagine how cool it will be to take for granted that there are humans living on the Moon.
Personally, I have also spent a lot of time researching about the Chandra X-ray Observatory which has been named after the late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. He has done a great job with X-ray astronomy and Chandra is still producing great results. It’s Chandra’s 20thanniversary this year, so multiple interesting stuff keeps happening around that as well as in NASA overall.Working at NASA allows you to look at a lot of different things.
SP’s: Coming to the subject at hand, Apollo 11. What is your first memoryof the mission?
Brian: Fortunately or unfortunately, I was born in 1978 but I think as any school kid growing up in America I got to know who the space heroes are, to know about America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard, the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn and other space accomplishments. But when it comes to Apollo 11, I think it really overshadows everything else. We all knew who Neil Armstrong is and what he did. We pretty much grew up with that as most people across the world did, with an emotionthe world has accomplished something so major.
SP’s: It is well established that Apollo 11 was and will always remain historical. What according to you as a historian, makes history?
Brian: It indeed is and shall remain historical. Even 5000 years from now, people will look back and will always remember that was the century that we went to another heavenly body so it being an incredible first, a monumental first certainly makes it historical. It was also such a leap forward that it changes our own identity of who we are as people, and marks that we could become a space bearing civilization to go beyond. In that way, it is a key turning point in history, a turning point where you take the next big escalation like an industrial revolution or a scientific revolution. This revolutionary idea of going to another heavenly body really wrapped up to make it an exceptionally important historic event.
SP’s: Do you think there was something in particular that we were able to receive about Moon’s history from this mission?
Brian: The mission really expanded our knowledge of the material the Moon comprises of and the geology of the Moon. Also, there’s a lot that we can learn about our own geology with that of Moon. One thing that remains is that we still do not really know how exactly the Moon was formed, so there’s a lot left to learn about the Moon and the fact that we did learn from this mission is that at one time the lunar surface was very hot and active, it had molten lava in a lot of spaces but we have not yet verified that about the materials and the rocks. Also that really dates the history of the Moon. Its 3.9 billion years old when all these events were happening so that tells a lot about ourselves and even Mars will be the same way, there’s a lot we will find out from Mars that will tell us about our own history and future. Robots are up there already, we have Curiosity Rover, we have the Mars 2020 rover that’s going to launch pretty soon but to have humans there interacting with robots and carry similar explorations on Mars as done on the Moon, there’s so much we will be able to learn that way.
There are now enough resources as well that we can now go back to the Moon in a different model, a model that can build around sustainability, about sustaining that presence on Moon and to me that’s what has been built over the last 50 years. We have learnt so much and now is the time for us to go apply those lessons to the Moon, learn new lessons on the Moon and then go to Mars to learn more lessons.
SP’s: There’s also a theory that a collision had occurred and some part of Earth spread in space after that collision and came together due to gravity. So that means Moon is in fact a part of the Earth, are we sure about that?
Brian: With all scientific theory and hypothesis, there is still debate about that. People are coming together to discuss a few different options as well and this is one of the major possibility. There’s the idea that there was a Mars sized planet that actually collided and the Moon kind off was a chunk of the Earth that moved aside and came together by gravity. There’s also the idea that all these materials that Moon is made off basically came from somewhere else but were called in by gravity. So there’s just a lot. The more we look into the Moon, the more we just can’t guess about what it was. We need more hands on experience into the Moon, in doing its research, and I think what you will see over the next 10 years is that we will be able to solve questions like that for good and if we know the answers to those questions then that just tells us something very specific about the planet we live on and how it was involved in this process so it’s extremely important from a scientific perspective to be able to find the answer to this question.
SP’s: Through the rocks that were collected during the Apollo 11 mission, was any aid provided in deciphering about the similarity in the crust composition of the Earth and the Moon?
Brian: That’s out of my league but the rocks we found did tell us some interesting things about Moon’s composition. Like I said, it did tell us that at one point it was a very hot world but we still know very less about that and I think more exploration will tell us more and better. But yes the rocks collected confirmed something we already knew that the Moon gets compounded because it doesn’t have an atmosphere so it is constantly under bombardment and at one point it was on bombardment to a certain degree that it’s possibly the reason why the lunar surface has sustained huge impacts which still continue in a way that its heating the crust surfaces. However, these are questions we will have to answer eventually.
Exactly, when Apollo 11 landed, the world was watching. It wasn’t just America, it was humanity doing something that had not been done before. Humanity could be a part of it and know its own potential. When the astronauts came back and went on a world tour, wherever they went people greeted them saying that we did it that just reassures that deep down we are all very connected in this spirit.
SP’s: We see only one side of the Moon, the other is usually hidden and is not to be seen from Earth, is that correct?
Brian: Yes, it is what they call that we are at a phase-lock with the Moon. As we go around, one side of the Moon is kind off always locked in the orbit, we are never able to see that far-side of the Moon from Earth. We only see one phase of the Moon while there’s the dark side to the Moon as well which is what is hoped to be explored soon with the lunar South Pole landing.
SP’s: It’s indeed incredible and yet so unreal to be on another heavenly body.
Brian: Yes exactly and there is so much that we take for granted. The International Space Station for instance, is incredible. There have been human beings orbiting Earth continuously for almost two decades now and we basically take it for granted. I think what we would like to see is for a human presence on the Moon to be taken for granted, as if it’s just another place where we already are. So that’s the kind of sustainability we want to have. These kind of things are expensive and a lot of resources are required. So if you can go and live on the Moon with the things that are there, finding the ability to produce energy, the ability to find water there and to harness that, it could really just change everything. Imagine how cool it will be to take for granted that there are humans living on the Moon.
SP’s: We had Apollo missions back to back and then there has been then a gap until now with Artemis. What do you think sort of created that gap? Were we waiting for something or were there more questions and so a pause to analyze better before moving further?
Brian: I think it was several reasons but again it was the way we went first time on the Moon. The idea of just landing on the Moon, collecting material and returning to Earth, that’s not a sustainable method, and you cannot continue doing that. Also, it’s too expensive, so you had to wait on and what we were doing in the meantime was learning more about getting to space, about being in space, about producing energy, and developing new technologies. Right now we are at a critical breaking point wherewith developed technologies and through explorations like we have done on Mars with robots, landers and now with industry partners, you have sort of reached this critical mass where the time is right and the correct key technologies are there. There are now enough resources as well that we can now go back to the Moon in a different model, a model that can build around sustainability, about sustaining that presence on Moon and to me that’s what has been built over the last 50 years. We have learnt so much and now is the time for us to go apply those lessons to the Moon, learn new lessons on the Moon and then go to Mars to learn more lessons.
SP’s: ‘The primary objective of Apollo 11 was to complete a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961: perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth.’ Was the President’s statement the major trigger point, a major push that probably made this mission happen a little earlier in time?
Brian: Oh yes without a doubt his statement was a motivation because that’s something that you have to have. Just how your Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, has spoken about space exploration and sending humans in space. The idea that you commit and make this a national goal and then follow this goal with committed national resources to it is what gives such missions a boost. The plans were already in place but that’s what Kennedy did, he talked about it and committed. When you receive that kind of a commitment from the highest office, form the national government, you have access to that kind of resources too to accomplish something as major as this.
SP’s: But it was a good trigger for NASA to have bounced back especially after Apollo 1 accident and to become what it is today. Apollo 11 did somewhere pave the way for what NASA is today?
Brian: Absolutely. One of the things that as an agency and as a humanity this mission did was it just highlighted that if given the resources and if we put our minds to it, there’s not much that we cannot do as a species and that’s why Apollo 11 resonates with this that despite not having the technologies they did it and accomplished. This will be remembered 1000 years later also as to what happens when human beings put their mind into something.
The world is a different place now but like I mentioned earlier we are going to need all the players, all the hands on deck to accomplish something like this. You cannot have people working against each other, you can’t have people working in isolation with each other because these things are incredibly difficult. You have a situation like International Space Station where great science happens every day and that’s like a collaboration model, not a competition model and that’s really the model which needs to dominate to be successful in the future.
SP’s: How crucial do you think were the missions before Apollo11 in deciding its success, especially considering Apollo 1 accident and in less than a decade of the President’s announcement?
Brian: Without a doubt every mission is incredibly important even Apollo 1. Apollo 1 was a horrible day, it was a huge loss but it really changed the way they saw safety. There was an effort to go back into the program and the program that came from the aftermath of that accident was a much better version and a very stronger program. Then you have the Saturn V, this monstrous technological marvel that makes all this possible, the first launch Apollo 4 was a flawless launch in all three stages. But the second launch Apollo 6 was a disaster almost, you had failure at every stage and even restart was done on the orbit so while they still got to the orbit there were many things that didn’t go as planned. So you continue to learn about the system, make the corrections and then go forward. Apollo 7 was not a Saturn- 1B, a smaller rocket but that was the first time human beings were on board in the Apollo program and actually launched on a Saturn vehicle. Apollo 8 was important too as it was the first time ever the humans went beyond the low Earth orbit so these three astronauts in Apollo 8, they travelled to the Moon, they orbited the Moon, they took some of the most important pictures for NASA. The Earth-rise photo comes from Apollo 8 mission, for the first time humans got to see themselves in a way they had never seen before through that picture of the Earth. Apollo 9 again, you learn better about orbiting. While Apollo 10 returns to the Moon and is kind of a dress-rehearsal for the lunar landing. Apollo 10 does everything but land on the lunar surface so by the time you get to Apollo 11, the only thing you have never done is to actually land on the Moon. That’s why that was such a critical moment during Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong sees that they are about to land on a crater that’s filled with boulders so he takes control of the landing craft and tries pushing it to somewhere else. So the first time we plan to land on another heavenly body and the place we picked up to land was not correct so those last few moments made it all the more crucial.
SP’s: It had its flavor of anxiety throughout the mission but once it happened, it has only inspired and given hopes to so many people across the globe, isn’t it?
Brian: Exactly, when Apollo 11 landed, the world was watching. It wasn’t just America, it was humanity doing something that had not been done before. Humanity could be a part of it and know its own potential. When the astronauts came back and went on a world tour, wherever they went people greeted them saying that we did it that just reassures that deep down we are all very connected in this spirit.
SP’s: What do you think has changed for space exploration since Apollo 11?
Brian: I think geopolitically Earth is a different place now than it was in the 1960s and we hope it continues to stay a different place than it was in the 1960s. In the 50 years from Apollo, we have learnt so much about living and working in space. Through the space shuttle program we learned about getting to space, access to space and America is not the only one now that has access to space. You look at the Russians who had a huge role in establishing space expedition now India as well is up there, there’s Israel too, there’s a lot more to space exploration now. There’s the European Space agency, the Japanese space agency, there are so many participants now, which is a great thing. The world is a different place now but like I mentioned earlier we are going to need all the players, all the hands on deck to accomplish something like this. You cannot have people working against each other, you can’t have people working in isolation with each other because these things are incredibly difficult. You have a situation like International Space Station where great science happens every day and that’s like a collaboration model, not a competition model and that’s really the model which needs to dominate to be successful in the future.
SP’s: What is the emotion that fills your heart or the thought that crosses your mind when you look back to the 50 years of journey?
Brian: It still is big but there is nothing about it that has become easier. We have not gone back to the Moon since 1972, and in fact we have not gone beyond the lower Earth orbit because it is still as difficult. However, on this new mission, Artemis, we go back in 2024, and that’s incredibly difficult even now. One may think that with the technology that we have, it somehow might be easier but it is still just as impressive. The next time humans land on the Moon it is really going to get the world’s attention.
What we want to do is not just go there, land and then come back like the Apollo missions but to eventually by 2028 develop a permanent presence on the Moon just like we have done with the International Space Station in the past two decades.
SP’s: Now that you have mentioned Artemis, any specific aims with this mission or any particular anticipations?
Brian: Our mission itself at Marshall is to develop a space exploration architecture including launch vehicles. Space launch system is a major part of that but also having our industry partners like Blue Origin and SpaceX is an important piece of this mission as it rightly highlights that it is going to take all hands on deck to get this done. The specific aim is again to build that infrastructure and to learn to go to the Moon and additionally learn to live there in a sustainable way. What we want to do is not just go there, land and then come back like the Apollo missions but to eventually by 2028 develop a permanent presence on the Moon just like we have done with the International Space Station in the past two decades. So to learn to live off the land and develop new business models, new manufacturing units to actually go to the Moon and use the materials you have there to sustain yourself on Earth’s sole natural satellite. The big thing is to use this as a jumping board to Mars, which is going to be a complete game changer but to do that is incredibly difficult again. There’s a lot we do not know yet to go that far away from the planet Earth but also there’s a lot that we’re going to learn by being on the Moon, by learning hard lessons that will enable us to go to Mars, to get better prepared, better equipped and to begin to sustain ourselves later. This is the beginning of humans becoming an inter-planetary species and that’s a very exciting point about it.
SP’s: So we are still hoping to find life on Moon or elsewhere?
Brian: Yes, that’s one piece of it obviously. If there could be anything near to the accomplishment of landing on the Moon, it would be discovering life on the Moon because that in a way changes our own identity. To know that we are not alone in the universe would be extra ordinary, it would kind off shatter our perspectives of who we are. It’s the idea to go to the Moon and the idea about the lunar South Pole as well that there could be water present there. If we can find sustainable materials, things that are so critical to our survival on the Moon, that would be a complete game changer. We can have water, we can have fuel, and we can generate oxygen. Helium-3, which is on the Moon in very large amounts, has the ability to change the way we produce energy on Earth. It could revolutionize how we give energy, and we need to explore that more.
SP’s: You would probably be aware of India’s second Moon mission, Chandrayaan-2 which was recently launched and in fact aims to explore the lunar South Pole, which is not only the unexplored region of the Moon but also interestingly the area where traces of water were earlier discovered. What do you look forward to from this mission?
Brian: Indian space program dates back to the 1960s, and has had huge accomplishments with Chandrayaan-1, Chandrayaan-2 now, and other missions. When it comes to Moon, humanity has explored very small part of it yet. All the Apollo missions kind off centered around the lunar equator, so to go to lunar south pole is something incredible and has never been done before. Also going to the South Pole where water traces were found earlier is significant as this is an attempt to ensure that finding. Lunar South Pole is also an important part because of the permanent darkness of that region that’s why we believe the water is still there, it hasn’t evaporated yet but we might not be right. Another fact is darkness creates issues with explorations especially human explorations which is also why this mission is vital as it will help decipher the course for future explorations in this region. In fact, that‘s one part of the Artemis program as well. During Apollo it was more like the US vs the Soviet Union, it was all part of a cold war. But I believe if we are going to sustain ourselves as human beings on other heavenly bodies, it’s not going to be one country that can do it, it has to be worked out in partnership. The Americans, the Indian government, the Russians, the Japanese, the Canadians, and all those people who have long histories in space program will have to go hand in hand to explore and to sustain ourselves because it’s not about just one country, it’s about humanity.
SP’s: When we are studying history and science as our subjects, we never really establish any possibility of a link between the too. However you are sort of bridging that gap, so what relation do you think is there between science and history?
Brian: That’s a huge question, I can answer that in 1000 different ways but one of the relation between science and history is that at times science drives history. Because it has enabled adaptation, has enabled advancement, enabled lot of positives but it also changes how we see ourselves, like going to the Moon changed the way we saw ourselves. That’s a clear episode of science and technology driving history, how learning about science and technology allows history to advance and allows history to move forward to a new era. It is like I see history in the making here.
SP’s: You mentioned about how all the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are deep space advocates and held lifelong passion for space. Now there is also the movie, First Man coming up. How will that rekindle more aspirations and young minds?
Brian: First Man kind off profiles Neil’s life. But one of the things that’s so incredible about that movie is not just portraying Neil’s life but also to portray what was it like to sacrifice and participate in such a program. It gives an inside view and highlights it was not just those three astronauts but also 4000 men and women involved in the program who sacrificed their health, and the time with their families to accomplish something so great. I believe space programs resonate with young minds and inspire them to work harder and become a part of something so incredible, difficult yet holding great benefits.
SP’s: Anything else that you might want to add?
Brian: To experience the Apollo 11 anniversary and see the excitement around it has been overwhelming. Also to think how great that accomplishment was and to now going back to the Moonwith Artemis and see what we can do is exciting. So to think about how it was in 1969 and how it would be in 2024, why it was a big thing at that time and how important will this mission be now is something that significantly came out for me from these celebrations.