50th Anniversary Of Apollo 11 Moon Landing Has Wisconsin Scientists Looking Back, Forward

Jul 18, 2019

The 50th anniversary of the first astronaut moon landing comes as NASA is talking of another trip to the moon within five years, and of taking people to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Astronomers, engineers, and human health experts across Wisconsin have been tracking the discussion. And some are working on projects potentially tied to more space travel.

Recently at the Washburn Observatory on the UW-Madison campus, Astronomy instructor and science historian Jim Lattis unlocked a shutter to the night sky. The shutter is part of the dome covering the observatory's 20-foot tall telescope with the 15-and-a-half-inch lens.

The telescope is powerful enough for good looks at the moon. And members of the public have been doing that a lot lately in advance of the Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary. Lattis is also willing to look back 50 years to what he remembers from that night.  

The exterior of the Washburn Observatory at UW-Madison.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"I was a  kid and very, very interested in the whole thing. I certainly stayed up to watch it on TV. I think I might have been the only member of my family that did. Everybody else figured they would read about it the next day," Lattis said. 

Like many young people at the time, he says it made him think about becoming an astronaut. These days, he focuses on the science that was unleashed. Lattis says the dirt and rock samples collected on the Apollo 11 and subsequent moon visits have given scientists a timeline of early developments in the solar system.

"Even the theory, for example, which is now the most widely accepted theory, that the origin of the moon is from a massive planetary collision of the earth, with another primordial body," Lattis said.

Lattis, who directs a UW-Madison education and outreach center called Space Place, says he's glad to hear talk of possible future astronaut-crewed missions. He says there have been huge improvements in things like computing and communications systems since Apollo 11. 

On the UW-Milwaukee campus, several researchers are looking into ways to help future space travel. In the Civil Engineering Department, Associate Professor Rani Elhajjar is trying to improve the reusability of rocket stages. Elhajjar previously worked at the private spacecraft company SpaceX .He says he's cautiously optimistic about more flights, including brief, sub-orbital ones that so far are only for the well-to-do. 

UWM Prof. Rani Elhajjar showed this SpaceX slide during a May presentation at the UWM Planetarium.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"Now, the cost is $250,000 per passenger for a short flight. Maybe with time, this will drop significantly where a lot of people can afford it," Elhajjar said.

But Elhajjar says there have been some recent failures with rockets, including last fall when a Soyuz launch with a NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to be aborted after lift-off. So, Elhajjar would like to see a heavy amount of caution.

“The worrying thing on my part is that we have neglected that part of the equation. We have encouraged the commercialization, but not the regulation side of the equation,” Elhajjar said.

While a trip to the moon might only take a few days, one to Mars might take as much as seven months.  Experts in exercise science wonder about the toll on the human body.

Marquette University professor Sandra Hunter with a treadmill that's designed to keep astronauts in shape.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

On the International Space Station, scientists use specially designed treadmills to try to keep in shape. Sandra Hunter, director of Marquette University's Athletics and Human Performance Center, says weightlessness in space can affect bone density, muscle mass, balance and blood.

"The amount of blood that can get around the body in one beat — the stroke volume — is declined, so therefore heart rate has to increase. So tolerance to any type of activity is less," Hunter said.

Hunter has studied how space travel changes the human body, and says additional exercise can't make up for all the negative effects. Still, she supports more space missions.

So does UW-Milwaukee mechanical engineering student Nathan Swanson. He’s part of team working on sensors that could allow astronauts to do more weight-saving on-board building of tools with a 3-D printer.  Swanson says he might want to work in the aerospace industry, and hopes this month's love affair with 50-plus years of space ignites a permanent romance.

UWM Mechanical Engineering student Nathan Swanson.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"I think it's got another 150 years-200 years. I think this will never stop. We're never going to stop our curiosity of going beyond what we have," Swanson said.

Count Swanson in the camp of those who say the space program has brought positive discoveries for Earth, and may bring more solutions to earthly problems.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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