Interview with Brian Malow: 50th anniversary of Apollo 11


Neil Armstrong’s iconic words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped down the ladder onto the surface of the Moon have been heard all around the world. The Apollo program was launched during the space race between the Soviet Union and the USA during the Cold War. NASA’s Apollo 11 successfully accomplished the mission to land the first humans on the Moon in 1969. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited the moon in the command.

Respectively, Apollo 11 (1969), Apollo 12 (1969), Apollo 14 (1971) Apollo 15 (1971) Apollo 16 (1972), Apollo 17 (1972) landed successfully and during these six human spaceflights, twelve men walked on the moon.

Merve Kara from AeroTime has spoken with Brian Malow, Earth’s Premier Science Comedian (self-proclaimed). He has worked with the NSF, AAAS, NASA, NIST, produced science videos for Time Magazine and audio essays for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio.

The Apollo program was launched as part of the space race between the Soviet Union and the USA during the Cold War.  What was the significance of the Apollo 11 mission’s success?

First of all, what an amazing achievement was the entire space program ‒ the idea of humans walking on another world for the first time. To get to the moon ‒ and to come back. It was an incredible technological achievement that showed what can happen when a bunch of people put their minds together and focus on a project. 

There is also maybe a more cynical part that it happened because there was tension between the United States and [Soviet – ed. note] Russia. They were competing to outdo each other, and NASA was given a bigger budget to achieve this.  So, there might have been political reasons why it was well funded, but then they took that money and achieved this incredible thing that had never been done before and has not exactly been done since either. 

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission, how have people’s perspectives on space exploration changed?

Well, in a lot of different ways. It is still an incredibly inspiring thing. There are a lot of people who are huge fans of the space program and they want us to do more. For example, the International Space Station has been constantly occupied, orbiting the Earth for more than 20 years with different crews. And it is huge, it is the size of a football field. A lot of people have been on it. 

In addition to that, NASA and other space programs from other countries have really specialized in uncrewed robotic exploration. We have sent spacecraft to every planet in the solar system and then to Pluto, and even beyond Pluto, which is incredible. I see it as an extension of our senses. First we looked out with our bare eyes, then we looked out with telescopes, then we sent spacecraft past Mars and Jupiter, and as they flew by they took some pictures. Now, we have actually put probes in Mars orbit, and even landed on the planet. 

The first footprints on the Moon. Image: NASA

I was just watching Venera 14 that landed on Venus, which is so hot that the probe did not last very long, but it recorded some sounds. So I was there, listening to sounds recorded on the surface of Venus. I am pretty sure we have the same thing on Mars. 

More recently, a couple of years ago, New Horizons [spacecraft] passed Pluto. Then, on New Year’s Day, it passed the most distant object that we have ever had a close encounter with ‒ Ultima Thule. And there is the Cassini mission, which spent years orbiting around Saturn and checking out Saturn and its moons. These objects are billions of miles away. 

The space program has blossomed into all sorts of stuff. Studying the Earth from space and studying the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, and the next one that is coming, this big James Webb Space Telescope, all of this extends from the space program. We have learned incredible things about the universe and about the Earth because of the space program. 

Neil Armstrong once said: “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small”. When we think about the moon landing, it was a real dream come true. What do you think will be the next milestone in space exploration?

I think now there could be a lot of different frontiers, some with human astronauts and some with just spacecraft. New horizons are out there ‒ on the outskirts of the solar system. It is a new horizon that we know very little about, but right now we have a spacecraft out there. It is taking pictures and collecting data and sending them back. Before that were Voyager spacecraft. One of those is still in the very outskirts of the solar system or outside the solar system, sending back information.

There are a lot of projects with telescopes, like the James Webb Telescope. It is going to be able to do things that the Hubble Space Telescope could not. Recently, the Kepler Space Telescope ended its mission. It was looking for planets around other stars [and] found thousands. We know now that most stars have planets so that is a wide open field to be explored in addition to everything that these telescopes unleash.

Talking about human spaceflight, we are looking at Mars and the Moon. Maybe someday we will have a longer presence on the Moon and even see people on Mars during our lifetime. I do not know a timeframe for that, it could happen within the next five, 10 or 20 years, maybe. It is really difficult to send humans to Mars and bring them back. There are some people willing to make a one-way trip, who volunteer to be set to Mars and just try to survive there without having the ability, yet, to come home. It is kind of scary ‒ if I had the opportunity, I do not think I would want to give up my life on Earth, though.

   Image: courtesy of Brian Malow with Harrison Schmitt (astronaut from Apollo 17 mission)

There are many conspiracy theories about the moon landing. For example, in 2001, Fox television network documentary “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” claimed NASA may have faked the first landing in 1969. Same conspiracy theories are still being discussed on different platforms. What do you think about the main reason for this ongoing debate about the moon landing?

It is a psychological issue: the idea of believing in conspiracy theories. I do not know why people have a hard time believing the moon landing happened. It was a very gradual process, like the whole history of physics. 

Nothing is impossible if you understand the science behind it. You can send a missile farther and farther away, and the faster you send it, Isaac Newton understood, the farther it will go before it hits the ground. If you send it far enough, it will just keep going and it will be in orbit. There is nothing impossible about the science and the math that millions of people understand. 

There are a lot of conspiracy theories that are grounded on misinformation. One of the things is that the flag that they placed on the moon was waving and why is it waving if there is no air? Well, the reason it is waving is because of the inertia from when it was attached to a rod. Motion does not go away, it is simple physics. So that flag waving had nothing to do with air.

Another one that is really easy to dismiss, as it is also based on misinformation, is that when they were on the surface of the Moon, how come you could not see the stars? That is just the contrast range of cameras. If you can see the brightly lit Moon surface, you can not see the dimly lit stars. It is the same as when you walk outside at night: when you first walk out, you can not see the stars because your eyes are adjusted to a bright environment. So when you go outside, they have to adjust. 

I think one of the strongest ways to dismiss the whole thing is that the moon landing was a huge political thing. There was a race with the Soviet Union. So if we had faked it, there is no way the Russians would have let us get away with it. They would have pointed out it was fake. But that did not happen.

There was a discussion about this on social media recently, asking that “if it is real, why are they are not visiting the Moon now?”

We are not going to the Moon now because of the money. We had [gone to the moon – ed. note] because it was not just about the technology or the science. It was about funding. To achieve the Moon landing, we gave NASA a very large budget. Once we have achieved that, it is not as politically important, so NASA’s budget is relatively small. That is the main reason, because human spaceflight is more challenging and more expensive and it has to be safer. What is an acceptable risk for a satellite, is not an acceptable risk for humans. 

We have not gone back to the Moon with humans, but we have done amazing things. Other countries now have sent spacecraft to the Moon ‒ China has just landed on the far side of the Moon.  People are not using humans anymore. But it is going to happen now that there are private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They are interested in sending astronauts. Other countries and companies will be working on it too, so we will see it again.

Is it accurate to say that we are living in the second space race era? If so, what are the differences between the second space race when we compare it with the first one? 

It is an exciting time. Countries and private companies are interested in pushing the boundaries and the frontiers. When the first spacecraft with humans went to space and then to the Moon, it was very competitive. There were no cooperation between the Soviets and the Americans, but now, while there is still competition, there are a lot more cooperation. The International Space Station is a cooperative effort of many countries that have contributed and visited [it]. So we are seeing cooperation among countries and we are seeing cooperation among companies. 

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