Science Lessons from the Moon Landing

Science Lessons from Apollo 11

The Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the greatest scientific explorations in history, providing new insights into solar wind, Einstein’s theory of special relativity and other discoveries that continued for decades after the mission concluded.1 However, before astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins could spend 22 hours on the moon, countless hours were spent on earth preparing the astronauts and their equipment for their journey.

Nearly 50 years after that seminal event, the steps taken to protect the crew as they hurtled through space and stepped onto the lunar surface stand as a testament to how the scientific method of research, as well as the application of prior knowledge and innovation, can benefit humankind.

That is why scientific inquiry and passion for solving big challenges continue to be powerful drivers of DuPont innovation. It is a belief that was partly shaped by the company’s integral role in the space program and moon landing.

When the lunar module Eagle touched down at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 pm, Eastern time, on July 20, 1969, material created by DuPont was the first to come into contact with the moon – the Kapton® insulation that covered the legs of the landing gear. The first U.S. flag planted on the moon was crafted from another DuPont invention, nylon.

Suiting Up

Many components of the Apollo 11 journey, from the survival kit containers on the ship to the space suits that the astronauts wore, depended on DuPont inventions.

The spacesuits, in particular, presented numerous challenges. “They needed to withstand exposure to cosmic and solar radiation, possible impacts by micrometeoroid particles traveling at high velocities and a range of surface temperatures between plus/minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (plus/minus 150 degrees Celsius),” according to a report from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.2 “At the same time, these protective systems had to provide an excellent fit while permitting as much freedom of mobility as possible so all mission plans could be carried out safely and successfully.”

You might think such out-of-this-world demands would require vast amounts of research into new materials. As the book “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo” points out, “none of the materials used in the final spacesuit were created de novo.”3 Instead they were mostly fashioned from materials that had already been in use on earth.

“I believe we couldn’t have gone to the moon without DuPont materials,” said John Richard, Global Business Director, DuPont Protection Solutions. “At the time, DuPont was the only company with the array of advanced products available to meet NASA’s needs.”4

Collaboration Unlocks Answers

The Apollo program underscored another one of DuPont’s core principles that continues to the present — collaboration unlocks answers. One of NASA’s early decisions was to create public-private partnerships rather than develop technology solely by itself. The U.S. government, focused on tangible results, pulled together the best and brightest minds to achieve them.

“With important exceptions, NASA scientists and engineers have not built flight hardware,” wrote Arnold Levine in Managing NASA in the Apollo Era.5 “Rather, they have planned the program, drafted the guidelines and established the parameters within which the product is to be developed.”

For example, DuPont provided Nomex® fiber to provide a protective layer to the space suits. Today’s astronauts still wear suits made with Nomex® and with DuPont™ Kevlar®, a leading brand of ballistic protection for law enforcement and the military.

As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing nears, you’ll no doubt see many iconic images of astronauts in spacesuits standing on the lunar surface. As you mark that historic event, ponder for a moment the scientific achievements that permitted it to happen. Because those are based on the same principles that need to guide us in solving pressing issues today and in the future, from protecting the environment to feeding the world.