Shortly after noon on July 20, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.
The impact of that moment continues to ripple though society and capture the imagination of many. For these University of Oregon faculty members — an astronomer, a product designer and a linguist — the moon landing was a source of inspiration and the basis of research, and it still resonates in their fields to this day.
Q: How did the moon landing affect your field?
A: Astronomers now are still reaping the benefits of Apollo. The generation of my thesis advisors were the kids that were inspired by Apollo. These were the engineers, the technical scientists and the people who wanted to build incredible machines; those are the folks who watched Apollo live. They were in their teens when the program happened.
I know for a fact that Apollo and 1960s-era NASA was a major inspiration for many of the instrument builders and technical staff that I worked with at large telescope facilities before my time at the UO. While Apollo was not directly related to astronomy —other than perhaps some stellar navigation during the crisis of Apollo 13 — it was this oblique support that we’re reaping the benefits of now.
Q: What does it mean to you now?
A: I think I caught the tail-end of the Apollo excitement, but I know now that I would have been, dare I even say, over the moon if I were 10 years older and were in that slightly older generation. I would have been hooked. I can tell because I still am hooked.
As an astronomer, I’m a little bit unusual in that I have a strong engineering slant. I freely admit that I love the machines of science. To me, I enjoy learning about the telescopes, and particularly the technology of the cameras and instruments that are used on them to obtain data, because in my mind I can draw a direct path from the camera that I helped build in grad school to someone who was inspired by Apollo.
Q: Is that the coolest part for you?
A: As an astronomer, it’s pretty cool to still look up the moon and think people walked on that. For me, personally, it’s the technology. I’m just immensely fascinated by the technology, the incredible strides in engineering and technology those folks made with what we would call extremely basic computers. I still find it almost unbelievable that many of the most critical calculations made for Apollo were made by a human.
And think that your phone has more memory in it than every Apollo spaceship that ever flew. I think we should all take a moment and respect what they did with what we would consider such limited technology. But you know what? It worked. That is a fascinating thing.
We all look up, we all appreciate the moon. I see the same moon as somebody in Australia sees — it’s upside down there — and space is the shared experience. I think we can use that in a positive way. Let’s parlay that fascination into something we can all get behind. I think Apollo was a worldwide catalyst that let us, humanity, do just that.
Q: With no female astronauts in 1969, how far has product design come for the U.S. space program since then in terms of incorporating females?
A: There were actually 19 women in the U.S. that trained to be astronauts in the 1960s. They were part of the Women in Space Program. The women completed the same required physiological tests as their male astronaut counterparts. Thirteen of the women passed the requirements, and some even outperformed the men. The program, however, was shut down around 1962.
The space agency did not select any (new) female astronaut candidates until 1978. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, in 1983. In-flight, she wore identically designed products to her fellow male astronauts. During Apollo days, suits were customized to each astronaut. Today, they are modular, and the parts are put together for each astronaut to create a “portable environment.” In the 1990s, due to budget cuts, some of the smaller-sized parts were discontinued, which makes it more difficult to outfit women properly.
Q: What does it say when the all-female spacewalk canceled because of the lack of sufficient female-specific spacesuits?
A: It says financially and strategically, that NASA is not keen about outfitting a wide variety of body shapes and sizes in space, and that they would rather outfit the “average man.” It also says that there is not an ecosystem in place for R&D teams to have a voice, to relook at the sizing systems for spacesuits. Although women were highlighted in the recent incident, the lack of sizes could also affect men, as the astronauts are more and more ethnically diverse.
Q: What do you think is the coolest thing about landing someone on the moon?
A: There are so many dangers and hazards that astronauts can face. I find it incredibly inspiring that a team of people can rally around an effort that seems impossible and make it successfully happen.
Q: What’s the reaction to your research around Neil Armstrong’s famous quote?
A: It’s been fun to work on because it captures people’s imagination in a way that typical research doesn’t always do. I think one reason why is we’re really, really good at understanding and producing speech, so most of the time, we don’t have misunderstandings, especially in cases where something is highly scripted or highly public.
This quote being so famous and also being a quote that is possibly misunderstood, I think really captures people’s imagination. The fact that there might be an explanation for why he was misunderstood or why he misspoke, depending on your perspective on this, I think both of those things are interesting to people because, from a layman’s perspective, that’s not something you think about happening all that often, misunderstanding or misspeaking.
Q: What prompted you to research the quote?
A: People have tried to look at this quote in a lot of detail, but it was recorded under really not ideal circumstances — 50 years ago from the moon — so it’s not like it’s the best recording quality we’ve ever seen.
The challenge there is you can fight all day back and forth about whether or not he said this. I don’t think we’re going to get a definitive answer from that.
What I like about our study is instead of saying is the “a” there, we took two tacks: which is to say, is it plausible that his utterance could be compatible with both “for” and “for a,” or is it only consistent with one or the other? The other question is: do people misunderstand instances like this, with acoustics that are similar to this? If the answer to both questions is yes, then we come down on a slightly more conclusive answer.
—By Jim Murez, University Communications