When considering the category “coolest thing humans have ever done” one of the things that could spring to mind are the Apollo lunar landings - and it’s easy to see why. Hundreds of thousands of people (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) putting in serious amounts of hours and sometimes personal risk to achieve a common goal and progress science and technology in the process - most of it ultimately benefiting the public outside of the sphere of spaceflight. And so it was that Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida for an 8 day mission to achieve what seemed to some like an impossible goal - walking on the surface of another celestial body.
The mission was a huge success, with Armstrong and Aldrin stepping onto the lunar surface after a hairy descent featuring multiple systems failures and warnings. A last minute pivot away from some large boulders provided some drama towards the end, but the two men guided their lunar module “Eagle” to a landing, 50 years ago today, July 20th, at 20:17 UTC in the Sea of Tranquility. Some time later in the early hours of the 21st Armstrong made the trip down the ladder and made his famous, but arguably slightly misheard pronouncement to the world. It was indeed a step - but was it for “man” or “a man”? We’ll never sort it out, probably.
There are, of course, people who deny that we ever landed there, claiming all sorts of alternative explanations such as film sets and citing evidence that is easily disproven, both theoretically and by practical experiment. There’s also the logic of whether such a huge plan of fakery would even be possible. Certainly the presence of experiments designed as inherently human-deployable gives additional evidence on top of all of the media footage, independent observations (including from inside Russia) and returned geological material with distinct properties that definitely place its origins as being not of Earth. Those of us who have no reason to question the awesome achievement of so many gifted engineers, technicians and aviators will be able to look back at one of our greatest adventures and see the benefits, both scientific and economic, that came from it. Happy anniversary, Apollo!