50th anniversary of the moon landing: Sydney experts weigh in

19 July 2019
On 20 July, 1969 the Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Fifty years later, science and engineering academics from the University of Sydney reflect on the important milestone and predict what the future holds for space exploration.

Moon landing still world's biggest scientific achievement

School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering academic and Associate Dean (Research Management) for the Faculty of Engineering Associate Professor Ben Thornber is a computational fluid dynamics expert and has previously worked for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the European Space Agency.

“The Apollo 11 Moon landing was the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken, particularly given the enormous human, societal and political cost in the event of failure," said Associate Professor Thornber.

View of a full Moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on 21 July 1969, one day after the Moon landing. Photo by NASA

View of a full Moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on 21 July 1969, one day after the Moon landing. Photo credit, and main image, top: NASA.

“It is a great example of what society can achieve when huge financial resources are made available to a solve a single grand challenge. Was it worth the cost? I don’t think anyone can doubt that in terms of STEM outreach alone it has paid off. The only problem with the moon mission is what next? The space industry is still waiting for an equally punchy sequel.”

Inspired by the Moon landing as a child, astrophysicist Professor Elaine Sadler has broad research interests in extragalactic astronomy and uses radio and optical telescopes in her research.

“I was a school student at the time of the Apollo missions and can clearly remember how inspiring they were. The pictures of the Earth taken from the Moon were (and still are) remarkable – reminding us how small our home in the universe really is," she said.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 17 flight engineer, Greg Chamitoff, floating in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 17 flight engineer, Greg Chamitoff, floating in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA.

NASA's next 20 years to be "transformational"

Former NASA astronaut and University of Sydney Lawrence Hargrave Adjunct Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Gregory Chamitoff is optimistic about the next chapter of space exploration. 

“We are very lucky to be living at this exciting time, 50 years after the first landing on the Moon. The next 10 to 20 years will likely be the most transformational period in human history as we explore the Moon and Mars, and establish the first permanent settlements in deep space and on other worlds," said Professor Chamitoff.

Computational fluid dynamics expert from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering Associate Professor Matthew Cleary leads the University of Sydney’s involvement in the Responsive Access to Space project and is confident that commercial interest in space will lead to efficiences and innovation.

“What is next? Space is being opened up by the inspired decision to let commercial operators play a major role. Commercial realities will drive up efficiency and drive down cost," said Associate Professor Cleary.

“Today's engineers are working on new concepts, including rotating detonation engines, that will transform the space industry from one involving state-run organisations to a broad-base industry with all manner of players.”

Australia becoming a future space leader

The first picture of the entire planet Earth was captured on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Photo credit: NASA

The first picture of the entire planet Earth was captured on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Photo credit: NASA

Professor in Space Physics Iver Cairns, Director of the ARC Training Centre CUAVA, at the University of Sydney, has just been selected by NASA for two satellite missions.

"Most of us have seen footage received via the Australian tracking stations at Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes. What many people don't know is that an Australian, Brian O'Brien, led multiple projects placing scientific instruments on the Moon, making multiple discoveries with that data over many years with NASA. There are many Australians who worked with NASA over the years and who are now working to build Australia a long-term space sector." 

Associate Professor Eleanor Bruce is an expert in the role of Cubesats in earth observation, and believes an understanding of space is key to better understanding the eath's changing environment.

“A few years after the Moon landing, the first picture of the entire planet was captured on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. This iconic image, known as the blue marble shot, beautifully depicts the vulnerability of our planet within the vastness of space. Today space captured images of the Earth’s land and ocean surfaces provide scientists with critical data for monitoring and understanding the impacts of human activities and changing climate regimes. 

“In the next few months the ARC Centre for Cubesats, UAVs and Their Applications (CUAVA) will be launching one of the first Australian designed cubesats with Earth observation capability allowing researchers to monitor environmental change from space”

artist image of an exomoon

Researchers have detected the first exomoon candidate - a moon orbiting a planet that lies outside our solar system. Using a technique called microlensing, they observed what could be either a moon and a planet - or a planet and a star. Image credit: NASA

Could deep space be the next frontier?

Expert in asteroseismology, which involves using the oscillation frequencies of a star to measure its internal properties, Professor Tim Bedding in the School of Physics believes moons will be the next frontier in space discovery.

"We have explored the Moon and found it to be fascinating but completely dry and barren. Meanwhile, astronomers are now studying planets around other stars and perhaps we will find that some of these have their own moons which could be more hospitable to life," he said.

Dr Xiaofeng Wu from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering is currently researching small satellites and believes the moon will soon be used as a base for deeper space travel, however warns that Moon missions are still complicated.

“In the near future the Moon could become the base for further explorations that allow us to travel further into space.

“Lunar missions continue to pose very complex systems engineering problems. Three months ago, an Israeli private company failed its Moon landing and last week, India delayed its mission to land a lunar rover. Despite these setbacks, the global community of space engineers and scientists are learning from these lessons, and we have much to look forward to.”

Astrophysicist Professor Geraint Lewis is an expert on the role of dark energy and dark matter on the evolution and ultimate fate of the universe. He is the co-author of A Fortunate Universe, Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos.

“The Moon landings were significant not only because of what we learnt about our nearest cosmic companion, the Moon, but the fact that we could do it. And many want to do it again and go much further – to Mars and the moons of the outer Solar System, inspired by the ‘one small step’ that took place half a century ago. Once we do, humanity will never be the same again.”

Apollo 11: An "enormous feat" yet to be repeated

Ikhana, a remotely piloted aircraft, is tested by NASA. Photo credit: NASA

Ikhana, a remotely piloted aircraft, is tested by NASA. Photo credit: NASA.

Professor Peter Tuthill is an expert in astrophysical imaging; studying stars and their immediate environments with unprecedented resolution.

“One thing that strikes me about this anniversary is that nobody then would have predicted that a half century would pass with no further visits. The Apollo astronauts remain the only humans who have set foot on another world. Only four of the original 12 lunar visitors are alive today. And despite our technological advances we are now even more struck with the bravery and audacity of the original lunar program.

“To many this feat remains is emblematic of the pinnacle of human achievement, with the words on the first plaque, read out by Armstrong, ‘We came in peace for all mankind’ echoing down the decades.”

Expert in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering academic, Associate Professor KC Wong believes the achievement of landing on the moon has been taken for granted, despite the impact it has had on numerous industries.

“Apollo 11 symbolised how easy it is for society to take something so hard for granted – it was, and continues to be, an enormous feat to fly to and land on the moon.

“We are all benefiting from technologies that emerged as a result of space exploration.  Our modern world is reliant on air transport and communication, satellite-enabled navigation systems, powerful computers and other technologies that all had origins in the space programs.”

Low Luisa

Media and PR Adviser (Engineering & IT)

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

Related articles