NASA Apollo 11 Embarked On Historic Lunar Mission 50 Years Ago, Private Sector Now Rockets Towards Mars

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If you were alive 50 years ago, and old enough to cast your eyes on a television, you no doubt remember the launch of Apollo 11. On July 16th, 1969 at 9:32am ET, the Apollo 11 Saturn V lifted off from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, FL, sending astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin on their journey towards the Moon.

Apollo 11 made one and a half orbits around the Earth after liftoff before performing a burn to put in a trajectory to intercept the Moon. The Columbia command module and Eagle lander carrying the three astronauts entered lunar orbit on July 19th, and on July 20th, Aldrin and Armstrong detached from Columbia and descended towards the lunar surface. On July 20th at 20:17 UTC, the Eagle landed on the Moon.

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It was not until the next day, 02:56:15 UTC, Armstrong stepped off Eagle's ladder and placed his foot on the lunar surface. After which, he uttered that famous phrase that nearly every American can recite by heart: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

The launch, lunar landing, and subsequent safe return of the Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin to Earth marked the culmination of a decade of U.S. manned spaceflight that progressed at an incredibly rapid pace. NASA progressed from the single-man Mercury program which served as a testbed for orbital flight, to Gemini, which was a two-man spacecraft that helped serve as a proof of concept for docking maneuvers. Apollo took all of the lessons learned from Mercury and Gemini to make the Moon landings possible.

However, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were all government-funded. The same goes for the Space Shuttle program, although its "scope" was never as exciting or as revolutionary as Apollo. However, the future of manned spaceflight seems to accelerating the fastest in the private sector. SpaceX is leading the way with its Falcon and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, which have been conducting missions for both the U.S. government and commercial customers.

With its Dragon capsule lofted atop a Falcon or Falcon Heavy, NASA is hoping that SpaceX will be able to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Currently, NASA has to rely on Russian rockets to blast Americans into space following the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program.

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Artist render of SpaceX BFR landing on Mars surface.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has grander ambitions than just low-Earth orbit -- he is hoping to send humans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. In fact, Musk hopes to eventually colonize Mars, which is something that people who witnessed the 1969 Apollo mission thought would happen within the next 50 years. Unfortunately, that dream still remains unfulfilled, but private ventures like Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin hope to make that dream a reality within the next decade or two.

In fact, Musk has plans to put humans on the surface of Mars by the middle of the next decade (hopefully it won't be a one-way trip). And if all goes according to plan, there will be a fully sustainable colony on Mars by 2050. However, the big question remains as to whether society has a real interest in going to Mars as they did in the 1960s with the Moon. While Apollo missions continued for years after Apollo 11, public interest dwindled.

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Going to Mars would be mission that won’t be measured in days, but months and possibly up to a year or more round trip. It would be exponentially more complicated and dangerous -- not to mention the extreme costs that would be primarily be undertaken by the private sector. We're certain that even with those odds, there will be people that are willing to sign up for such a risky mission. And when the first person that does eventually set foot on the surface of Mars, it will be yet another huge achievement in technological progress for the human race.