July 20, 2009 was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I’ve always been fascinated with the Apollo missions, mostly because they were so extraordinary. It’s pretty amazing to think that in one generation, we could go from learning how to fly, to traveling to the moon, 250,000 miles away, and then returning. While we’ve made progress in so many other areas in the last 40 years (computers and communication technology come to mind), space flight and aviation progress has paled by comparison.
I learned how to fly in a Cessna made a couple years after I was born. Gerald Ford was President then and Ronald Reagan was not yet the savior of the Republican party. A brand new Cessna made today is remarkably similar, except for much upgraded avionics. The avionics, computers and GPS make navigation and weather avoidance much easier than in the 1970s, but the engine and airframe is basically the same.
The aviation industry has faced some tough times in the last decade. September 11 caused a major slump in the commercial airline industry and the pilot population has been on a decline. General aviation is struggling to keep the pilot population from dwindling too much, as it battles increased regulation, mostly unfounded fears of terrorism (for perspective, a fully loaded Cessna weighs less than my car) and gas prices. The auto industry, not exactly a hotbed of innovation, is at least starting to produce hybrids and other innovative vehicles as it starts the long move away from the internal combustion engine. Aviation has a long way to go, especially general aviation planes like Cessnas, which still burn leaded fuel and are kept deliberately simple for safety reasons (no cooling system means the cooling system can’t fail!) There has to be many opportunities for innovation in this area, especially with new regulations bound to take effect at some point in the future.
I’m not sure what will spur innovation in the aviation and space industry, but I believe it has the potential to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists. The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC isn’t packed for nothing – the general public and kids have a natural love affair with aviation and space flight. Let’s just hope NASA continues to live on as a source of inspiration, as is so evident it was in the all footage from 40 years ago.
Incidentally, if you’d like to try your hand at landing on the moon, check out the Eagle Lander 3D application (Windows only). As you listen to the calm voices of the Apollo 11 astronauts, it’ll make you appreciate what Neil and Buzz did 40 years ago that much more.