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To the moon and back: Subject of Long Island program at Stony Brook

The summer trip to end all summer trips — the first voyage to the moon and back — will be the subject of a special five-hour Long Island program later this month, featuring lectures, displays and a roundtable discussion with the moonshot-era engineers who helped make the round trip possible.

“I’ll be giving a lecture about all the things we’ve learned about the moon over the past five decades,” said Timothy Glotch, a professor in the department of geosciences at Stony Brook University and a leading international expert on Earth’s closest celestial neighbor.

The program, sponsored by Stony Brook University and the Montauk Observatory, will be held in the Avram Theater at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on July 20. The event is open to the public and will be held 50 years to the day that humans first walked on the moon.

Apollo astronauts helped bring new insight to curious Earthlings who had yearned for countless millennia to learn more about the mysterious lunar landscape, said Glotch, who will open the program with his moon lecture.

“The moon doesn’t have atmosphere,” he explained, which means there is no protection like there is for Earth from the sun’s potent energy. The moon is bombarded without a protective shield.

“Earth’s atmosphere absorbs part of it,” Glotch said of solar energy that is emitted as both shortwave light and ultraviolet energy. Some bounces back to space when it hits the clouds, and the rest is absorbed by our atmosphere. The difference between Earth and the moon means the lunar surface can get quite hot.

“The temperature at the surface near the [moon’s] equator can reach 100 degrees Celsius, the temperature of boiling water,” which is about 212 degrees Fahrenheit, Glotch said. “So, if you are on the moon, you have to have an environmental containment suit because there is no atmosphere to transmute that heat.”

The moonshot dream began in 1961 with President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land humans on the lunar surface before the end of the decade. It would be a momentous 238,900-mile journey — one way. NASA made the dream a reality by inventing a dizzying array of new technologies, which included communications systems and the actual vehicles to get a crew that far away from home.

Apollo 11's Command Module, manufactured by North American Rockwell in California, was situated at the tip of a Saturn Five rocket and served as living quarters for the three crew members, as well as the vehicle that would cruise to the moon and back.

A lunar lander, manufactured on Long Island by Grumman Inc., was attached to the Command Module. The lander would detach and become the descent vehicle to touch down on the alien world.

Joshua Stoff,   curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, said the onboard systems in the lunar and command modules, and the computer network at NASA’s mission control in Houston, also laid the groundwork for many of the developments in computer technology today.

“It was mid-1960s technology,” Stoff said of Apollo-era systems, “but it was amazing technology.”

During the roundtable discussion at the upcoming program, engineers will explain their roles in developing the lunar lander technology.

Glotch said the mission itself was so well-planned that on July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins were launched from Cape Kennedy and four days later — right on schedule — the crew arrived at the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the lunar surface. Collins piloted the Command Module that cruised along the tiny orb’s outskirts while his fellow astronauts got acquainted with the alien sphere.

Since the historic flight a half century ago, anti-Apollo conspiracy theories have emerged, suggesting the lunar landings were NASA hoaxes. On the other extreme are television commercials and stories circulating on the internet suggesting today’s smartphones are millions of times more powerful than the computer systems that got three men to the moon and back.

“I know that can be very confusing when you are talking about millions of times more powerful,” said Fan Ye, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Stony Brook. “But the comparison is an oversimplification."

What actually is being compared, Ye said, is the speed at which data are transmitted, noting that today’s smartphones possess infinitely more computational speed than older-era communications systems because of improvements over time. 

But while today’s phones have the advantage of computational speed, communications technology used on the moon had the advantage of being able to function in extreme heat. Cellphones, by comparison, Ye said, were developed for daily use on Earth, and were not made to function under extreme temperatures.

Petar Djuric, chairman of electrical and computer engineering at Stony Brook, said Apollo-era astronauts not only were able to communicate via a wireless system with Earth-based Mission Control, they were able to communicate from the moon to the White House along with Mission Control in Houston in a three-way hookup over hundreds of thousands of miles.

There was a delay, Djuric underscored, in hearing responses to questions as transmissions traveled from two different geographic points on Earth through the Van Allen belts that surround the planet, then out to space and on to the moon.

“I am old enough to remember watching it live,” Djuric said in a recent interview, referring to events associated with the moon landing, and televised broadcasts of it. “I come from the former Yugoslavia and we were on vacation on the Adriatic coast. We had to wake up early in the morning,” to watch history being made in a first-of-its kind communications relay.

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