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Cover image for Moon Landing 50th Anniversary special

More than the Moon: our exploration summer special

Image credit: NASA

From deep sea to deep space, what's left to explore 50 years on from Apollo 11?

“I want to be an explorer, like Magellan,” Truman declares to the class in one of my favourite scenes from the 1998 film starring Jim Carrey. “I’m afraid no one’s going to pay you to do that, Truman,” says his teacher. “You might have to find something a little more practical. Besides, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we find there’s plenty left to explore, but it takes a lot more engineering and technology than Magellan, Columbus or even Armstrong had at their disposal.

Most people will know the “We choose to go to the Moon” part of JFK’s 1962 speech in Rice Stadium, but not its many references to engineering like this: “...we shall send to the Moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300-feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the Sun – almost as hot as it is here today – and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out.”

JFK’s untimely death meant he never saw it, but his prediction was to come true 50 years ago this month. It took all the breakthroughs he described, and many more. We hear a lot about how your smartphone has millions of times more computing power than Nasa had back then, but Piers Bizony argues the lunar landing pioneered an important new relationship between people and machines. Vicky Woollaston tracks the landmark space missions since then while Mark Williamson asks if it’s time we went back to the Moon.

Yet Truman would have been pleased to know there’s plenty left to explore right here on Earth. Recent expeditions to the South Pole have discovered more about the extraordinary glacial lakes that lie beneath Antarctica while Nick Smith looks at the half of our planet that is still uncharted in the deep sea. 

Exploration and engineering have always gone together, from Harrison’s famous clock to today’s submersibles and space probes. Dea Birkett discovers how new designs in prosthetics and other technology are allowing disabled people such as her own daughter to explore more. And record-breaking adventurer Ben Saunders talks to E&T about how new technology has made his expeditions easier than in the golden age of exploration but in some ways nothing much has changed. 


Graphic showing how live TV was sent from the Moon

How Live TV was downloaded from the Moon

Image credit: E&T

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