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How Apollo Changed The Scientific Ecosystem

When NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander successfully completed its mission on the Red Planet, it had what Carla Bitter calls “bonus time.” While missions to Mars are typically 90 solar days long (also known as “sols” and approximately 40 minutes longer than a regular day on Earth), the Phoenix lander stayed almost 60 days after it landed on the planet’s North Pole region.

“We had all this extra time. We could run one more experiment. We could dig another hole. We could take one more photograph,” explains Carla, who managed education and public outreach (EPO) for this mission out of the University of Arizona (UA) where the program was headed.

The additional days allowed the team to lead the robotic spacecraft into a new season on Mars. And on September 29, 2008, before the Phoenix lander froze solid, it captured the first snowfall ever witnessed on another planet.

“It’s a testament to how well-engineered this lander was, how lucky we got and that we should invest for as long as we can in missions like these because the knowledge you’re going to get is amazing,” says Carla.

Over the years, missions like the Phoenix lander have helped impassion the public to question the boundaries of humanity and spark interest in the pursuit of interplanetary travel. During the Pheonix lander’s mission, for example, it was Carla's multidisciplinary and multi-agency EPO which earned her team the 2009 Excellence in Education & Public Outreach and Science Communication for a NASA Mission award. Her efforts brought the science, discovery and excitment of the mission to life through blogging, established the first Mars twitter account and created extensive international outreach through lectures festivals documentaries and media.

The EPO team's ability to piece the “data story, the energy story, the science story, [and the] human story” of the mission garnered a reach of 50 to 60 million people around the world.

However, Carla notes, the wonder and fascination of space is a newly built narrative, and one that was afforded to scientists and engineers years after the success of Apollo.

"Giant international and longstanding collaborations like the International Space Station are just the beginning of learning what it takes to keep humans in space."

“Going to space to pursue the imagination and romance of becoming interplanetary species is very different to the language we used when trying to get to the moon,” she says, now serving as the VP of Learning & Programming at Science World. “And the difference is that we’re not trying to win a space race.”

In a pre-Apollo 11 world, before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon boots touched the surface of the moon, missions like Mercury and Gemini focused, instead, on whether astronauts would make it back alive.

“You needed people who were willing to break the sound barrier and find out what near orbit was like” explains Carla. “Because a lot of the infrastructure was from the war, military pilots were the first people you’d think of who were willing to test the human endurance level.”

It was only after the space program gained traction in the 1960s that NASA began building teams whose members had backgrounds in geology, physics, astronomy and biology.

“They realized they needed everybody. People who could think mathematically, computationally and had engineering skills — doctors, biologists, psychologists, plus imagination,” says Carla.

As the Apollo mission celebrates its 50th anniversary, Carla thinks back to the quiet but catalytic moment that marked a cultural shift in our relationship to science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM): Earthrise captured by William Anders on Apollo 8. Seeing ourselves from space for the first time, Carla argues, reorganized the way we thought about our home planet.

“The Earthrise picture really started this cascade of what eventually developed as STEAM,” says Carla. “Suddenly there was this idea that we are a planet with a closed system, a fragile thing, that has very little separating us from the whole vacuum of space, that this is all the water we’re ever going to get and that trees matter.”

While the history of the interplanetary travel is one of competition, Carla says the future cannot be achieved without collaboration.

“Apollo was phenomenal, we figured out we could get people to the moon. So now what do we do with that information?” she says. “I think this next generation of environmentalists, aerospace engineers and astronauts came about because we asked: what do we need to learn now that we’re this interplanetary species? Giant international and longstanding collaborations like the International Space Station are just the beginning of learning what it takes to keep humans in space. We need to keep asking that question and, different from the space race, we need to travel our solar system together.”

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the moon!

Be there for the exhilarating final moments of preparation, liftoff, the moon landing and return to Earth of this historic mission with a viewing of Apollo 11. Playing at our OMNIMAX® Theatre this Saturday, November 30.