Moon landing and being a scientist
- Professor Martin Hendry FRSE
Answers to popular questions on the Moon landing and being a scientist.
We’ve asked the scientists and got answers to popular questions from young people about astronomy and astrophysics.
This interactive poster has been designed to support learning and teaching as well as create an eye-catching classroom display.
Support pupils to learn independently and find the answers by scanning the QR code on each poster.
Any of these materials can be paired with one of our talks from the RSE schools talks programme, and are ideal for use with pupils in broad general education (BGE).
Download RSE schools poster, space for BGE 2023 (362KB, PDF)
Links with the Curriculum for EXCELLENCE
By using my knowledge of our solar system and the basic needs of living things, I can produce a reasoned argument on the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe – SCN 3-06a.
By researching developments used to observe or explore space, I can illustrate how our knowledge of the universe has evolved over time – SCN 4-06a.
ANSWERS PROVIDED BY
Professor Martin Hendry, Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology at the University of Glasgow
Martin Hendry works as a Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology at the University of Glasgow. He studies gravitation waves – cosmic ripples in the fabric of the universe – and cosmology – the origins of our universe and how it’s evolved. Martin is a passionate advocate for science education and communication, and in 2015, he was awarded the MBE for services to the public understanding of science.
What was the purpose of the moon landing?
That’s an interesting question, and one which has quite a few different answers, I think. In one way, the purpose of sending people to the Moon was to explore, because we’re a curious species and we wanted to explore new frontiers and new places – just like hundreds of years earlier adventurers from Europe went to explore North and South America, or Africa and Australia (although of course there were lots of people already living in those “unexplored” countries, whereas we didn’t ever expect we’d find anyone living on the Moon!)
We also have to admit, however, that a major reason for the US sending people to the Moon was politics, because the Soviet Union had begun to explore space by putting rockets into orbit around the Earth and the US Government wanted to win the “space race” by getting to the Moon first.
At the same time, the remarkable effort it took to develop all the science and engineering needed to send people to the Moon really helped to drive forward innovations and inventions – producing a lot of incredibly useful technology that we still use today, all these decades later. And sending people to the Moon was an exciting challenge for the young people of the 1960s all around the world – inspiring many of them to learn about science and about space, and perhaps even think about a career in science and engineering. So that could be considered the purpose of the Apollo missions too.
How much fuel did it take to get to the moon and back?
“A lot”, is the short answer! And almost all of the fuel was needed just to get the Saturn V moon rocket off the ground, into Earth orbit and then moving fast enough to escape from Earth’s gravity in the first place. The Saturn V consisted of three stages: the first stage fired its rockets to launch the Saturn V from the ground, but once all of its fuel was used up the empty first stage was then “thrown away” (or “jettisoned”) and fell back into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up. The second, and later the third, stage rockets then fired to increase the rocket’s speed even more. The first stage carried nearly 2 million litres of fuel (kerosene, similar to the fuel that aircraft burn) and liquid oxygen (the oxygen was needed to make the
fuel burn, or “combust”, since there’s no air in space). The second stage carried nearly 1.3 million litres of fuel (this time liquid hydrogen) and liquid oxygen, and the third stage carried just over 300,000 litres of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For comparison, a typical car carries only about 60 litres of fuel in its tank!
Why did they stop going to the moon? / Why haven’t we gone back to the moon?
This is as much about politics as about science! There’s certainly lots of things to still find out about the Moon, but sending astronauts there was expensive – and in the 1970s began to lose interest in the space program and the US government’s priorities shifted to other things. NASA (and the European Space Agency) have continued to explore space, however – and have sent spacecraft to all of the planets – and a fair number of asteroids and even some comets – in the Solar System. But this can be done much more cheaply, and safely, using robot spacecraft, rather than sending people. In the future we may well send people to the planets, but probably not for another decade or so – and the first step in making that possible will be to send people back to the Moon! NASA is committed to doing that in just a few years’ time. The cost is still expensive, but there are lots of natural resources that we may be able to extract from the Moon, and scientific studies and experiments we can carry out in the Moon’s low gravity that we couldn’t perform on Earth. So there are lots of reasons to go back to the Moon; it’s just going to take a little time.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a scientist?
I’m very glad you asked that question. I think the best advice I could give is to say “Go for it!” There are lots of super-interesting jobs that scientists do, and if you’re curious and interested in finding out more about the world around you – then basically you’re already being a scientist,so there’s no reason at all you couldn’t be a scientist as a career. Of course, you’d need to think carefully about which subjects to study at high school: there are different areas of science that you can learn about once you’ve been at high school for a few years, called biology, chemistry and physics – and then there’s maths and engineering, which are closely related too. But in the first two or three years of high school you can get a “taster” of these different branches of science and that can help you decide which ones you’re most interested in.
Above all, you want to think about your choice of career based on doing something that you think is interesting and something that you like. Hopefully that will be true for science – it certainly was for me – in which case, like I said, go for it!
What is the best part of being a scientist?
One of the best things about my job is that there’s such amazing variety: one day I’m giving lectures to our students or helping them do lab experiments; another day I’m working with colleagues in the US or China, trying to understand what we’ve learned about black holes or exploding stars billions of light years away; another day I’m talking about space to high school students, or primary school students just like you! So I think my favourite part of the job is that I get to do all of these different things, with the common thread that connects them all that I get to talk about space – which is a subject I’m really passionate about – and I get to share that passion with other people.
Answers to other popular questions on space
RSE school talks programme
Activities to support the curriculum for excellence
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), offers free school talks, aimed at P6-S6, at any point during the school terms, either in person at your school or online.