About 2,250 years ago, Archimedes demanded a lever long enough to move the world. Fifty years ago, via the crew of Apollo 11 and the thousands of scientists and technicians who powered the Saturn V into orbit and the Eagle lander down to Mare Tranquillitatis on the moon, Nasa provided the human race with that lever, visibly changing our world view forever with distant images of men on the moon and the footprints they left behind for eternity in lunar dust. The benefit of distance is what Archimedes had sought, and here was visible proof that it had been achieved. These are the images that we recall when we think of Apollo 11, and they changed our perception of humanity. In the popular imagination, an earthbound bipedal species became a spacefaring race on July 20, 1969, ready to launch itself into the void. After this, the universe was the limit.
But there were other images from the Apollo 11 moon landing that produced another and equally powerful change in the imagination. It was a set of amazingly clear pictures of earthrise, with the home planet peeping over the lunar horizon. Point of view determines ways of seeing. Here, at the length of a cosmic arm, was evidence of what we had known theoretically for centuries — that we are tiny beings on a tiny though colourful planet, circling an unremarkable sun at the end of a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, far from the anvil of stars at the centre. Denizens of a provincial planet, who are nevertheless rapidly developing the science to reach for the stars.
Much is made of the contributions of the moon mission to how we live. It is said to have spun off Velcro and Teflon, for instance. It is Booker-quality fiction, for they were invented much earlier in Switzerland and by DuPont, respectively. Apollo 11 did spin off innovations like car vacuum cleaners, handheld machine tools and the oxygen masks which, in the litany of the airlines’ safety drill, “drop down from the panel above you” in emergencies. But its technical innovations were unremarkable in comparison to the mind-altering quality of its message. Fifty years after, with two Asian powers shooting for the moon and private enterprise planning manned Mars missions and commercial flights at the edge of space, the human race is almost ready to fly the coop.