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July 20, 2019, 3:39 p.m. EDT · CORRECTED

5 innovations of the Apollo moon program that changed life here on Earth

Thank the Apollo moon program for the GPS you use every day

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By Jean Creighton

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4. Global network of ground stations

Communicating with vehicles and people in space was just as important as getting them up there in the first place. An important breakthrough associated with the 1969 lunar landing was the construction of a global network of ground stations, called the Deep Space Network , to let controllers on Earth communicate constantly with missions in highly elliptical Earth orbits or beyond. This continuity was possible because the ground facilities were placed strategically 120 degrees apart in longitude so that each spacecraft would be in range of one of the ground stations at all times.

Because of the spacecraft’s limited power capacity, large antennas were built on Earth to simulate “big ears” to hear weak messages and to act as “big mouths” to broadcast loud commands. In fact, the Deep Space Network was used to communicate with the astronauts on Apollo 11 and was used to relay the first dramatic TV images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. The network was also critical for the survival of the crew on Apollo 13 because they needed guidance from ground personnel without wasting their precious power on communications.

Several dozen missions use the Deep Space Network as part of the continuing exploration of our solar system and beyond. In addition, the Deep Space Network permits communications with satellites that are on highly elliptical orbits , to monitor the poles and deliver radio signals.

5. Looking back at Earth

Getting to space has allowed people to turn their research efforts toward Earth. In August 1959, the unmanned satellite Explorer VI took the first crude photos of Earth from space on a mission researching the upper atmosphere, in preparation for the Apollo program.

Almost a decade later, the crew of Apollo 8 took a famous picture of the Earth rising over the lunar landscape, aptly named “ Earthrise .” This image helped people understand our planet as a unique shared world and boosted the environmental movement.

Understanding of our planet’s role in the universe deepened with Voyager 1’s “pale blue dot” photo — an image received by the Deep Space Network.

People and our machines have been taking pictures of the Earth from space ever since. Views of Earth from space guide people both globally and locally. What started in the early 1960s as a U.S. Navy satellite system to track its Polaris submarines to within 600 feet (185 meters) has blossomed into the Global Positioning System network of satellites providing location services worldwide.

Images from a series of Earth-observing satellites called Landsat are used to determine crop health , identify algae blooms and find potential oil deposits . Other uses include identifying which types of forest management are most effective in slowing the spread of wildfires or recognizing global changes such as glacier coverage and urban development .

As we learn more about our own planet and about exoplanets — planets around other stars — we become more aware of how precious our planet is. Efforts to preserve Earth itself may yet find help from fuel cells, another technology from the Apollo program. These storage systems for hydrogen and oxygen in the Apollo Service Module, which contained life-support systems and supplies for the lunar landing missions, generated power and produced potable water for the astronauts. Much cleaner energy sources than traditional combustion engines, fuel cells may play a part in transforming global energy production to fight climate change.

We can only wonder what innovations from the effort to send people to other planets will affect earthlings 50 years after the first Marswalk.

Jean Creighton is planetarium director at the Manfred Olson Planetarium and a NASA airborne astronomy ambassador at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. This piece was first published on The Conversation — “5 Moon-landing innovations that changed life on Earth

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