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Our World — 18 July 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: Forty years after the first moon landing, reliving the experience online and in print ... and studying the moon rocks, which keep giving up their secrets

WEISS: "Our techniques for analyzing lunar rocks keep getting better and better. So we keep going back to the same lunar samples with the new instrumentation that's developed every year and learning something new."

Those stories, the link between alcohol and dementia, and a close-up look at the amazing world of ants.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

New book revisits drama, Cold War setting of Apollo 11

Exactly forty years ago the world was transfixed as three Americans rocketed out into space, on a journey that would take the first human beings to the surface of the Moon. The astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16, 1969, atop the massive Saturn-Five rocket.

Much has been written about the flight of Apollo 11, including a new book called Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. I spoke this week with author Craig Nelson, whose book describes the Cold War setting that led President Kennedy to pledge America to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

Q: Remind us why President Kennedy pledged America to go to the Moon.

NELSON: The major and most pressing one was the fact that the Soviets had just launched [Yuri] into orbit, meaning they were far ahead of us. But also he had had the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs [invasion of Cuba] and another embarrassment with the communist success in Laos, and he felt he needed to do something to get the country back in a more exalted form than these constant public humiliations that you could really trace back to [Moscow's shootdown of an American U2 spyplane].

The second answer is the fact that the American public was terrified that the Soviet Union would turn space into a new battle ground, that they could launch weapons from satellites and … we needed to prove that we had the technology to defend ourselves from that platform.

Q: We all grew up with science fiction movies where there's a rocket that looks like a gleaming silver tube and has big tail fins on it. One piece, though. Why didn't the Apollo rocket look like that, and end up looking like it did?

NELSON: The answer to that question is really fantastic in that it would take an enormous rocket to leave the Earth's gravity as we saw with the Saturn. But it also takes an enormous rocket to leave Moon's gravity if you have to bring back a three-man crew and all their supplies and all their equipment. In fact, they estimated that to land on the Moon they would need a 30-meter [tall] rocket, meaning Armstrong and Aldrin's 'one small step' would have been including climbing down a 30-meter ladder to get to the surface of the Moon. So that seemed impractical. And then what [Wernher] von Braun really wanted to do was to send up parts of the rocket and assemble them in Earth orbit before taking off for the moon. But they were in such a rush to get to the Moon that it seemed it would take them too long to set up that procedure, and that's when they came up with the third technique, where the main craft orbits the moon while the lunar lander descends and ascends back, sort of like a dinghy going from a great ship into a small port.

Q: Tell me about the astronauts who actually were the first to go on the Apollo 11, the first Moon trip - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins.

NELSON: What's interesting in learning about the astronauts is the fact that we come in with an impression of them as being wild, cowboy, daredevil types. But in fact they're really the opposite of that. The signature quality of these men, that they have backgrounds in military test flight, is that they can sit and read out what dials and gauges are saying as their airplane is crashing to the ground, so that the engineers back on the ground will have the data to be able to produce a better airplane. So incredible coolness under pressure is the mark of a test pilot, and an astronaut. But beyond that you can really say that the astronauts have almost nothing in common. You have Mike Collins, who is the perfect wingman, expertly competent, but also a gourmand and an oenophile, who now paints watercolors in Florida in retirement. And you have Buzz Aldrin, who was so aggressive in pursuing his NASA career that he alienated many of the executives at the agency. And finally you have Neil Armstrong, who is so shy and so withdrawn, that many people have commented that, when you talk to him, they don't know if he's listening to what you're saying.

Q: Just a couple of years before the successful Apollo 11 flight, three astronauts were killed in a fire on the launch pad during a test in 1967. Despite that - and there were some close calls - but those were the only American fatalities during the Apollo program. But how dangerous was it, actually?

NELSON: It was really, tremendously dangerous. And that was one of the shocks to me in researching this book. And it all came home to me when I realized that Armstrong came very close to being killed while working for NASA three times.

Q: One of the most dramatic stories in the book is the actual descent of the lunar module to the surface, and it didn't exactly go according to plan.

NELSON: Well originally, NASA planned for the computer to land the Eagle all by itself, and human hands would not be involved at all. But what happened was, they were 4 miles [6 km] beyond where they were supposed to land. And Armstrong saw that the computer was bringing them down in a bunch of boulders. So he had to take control of the thing and land it himself, and meanwhile the Eagle had two radar systems, and they were conflicting with each other. And these conflicting numbers were sending the local computer into overdrive, and so it was flashing all of its alarms. And while that was all going on, the radio contact was missing between ground control and Eagle, and they had to reroute it through Mike Collins orbiting in Columbia, meaning another 3 second delay added to everything else. So as Armstrong is touching down he's so quiet, he's not saying a thing. And everyone at Mission Control is watching him run out of propellant, and he really landed at the last possible moment.

Q: The moon landings were 40 years ago. Politicians like to talk about going back - they do talk about going back to the Moon, or even going to Mars, yet here we are. What happened to NASA?

NELSON: Well, I think when people say we're not doing Apollo, NASA has declined and American has declined, but I really think that's a misreading of history. We had Apollo because of the Cold War, and we don't have it now just like we don't have helicopters in Vietnam anymore. But I do think there is going to be a re-ignition of the space race sometime in the future through competition, either through politically, whether it's India, China or Russia again, or commercially, whether through discovery of a mining operation that's commercially feasible from outer space, or space tourism or something like that. In 10 to 15 years we may also see a revolution in booster technology. So one of those things is going to re-ignite the space race, and I think that's what we need to go back to the Moon and go on to Mars.

Craig Nelson is the author of Rocket Men, the new book about the first men to visit the Moon and how they got there. We'll have more on the legacy of the Apollo program later in the show, but first ...

Moderate alcohol consumption lowers risk of dementia

A new study shows drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may help you stay sharp into old age. VOA's Steve Baragona reports.

BARAGONA: Research on alcohol has turned up mixed results. It appears to prevent heart disease, but may raise the risk of some kinds of cancer. Studies on middle-aged adults have shown that moderate drinking may help ward off dementia - that's the loss of mental functioning that can happen with aging. But less is known about whether those beneficial effects apply to senior adults.

Dr. Kaycee Sink and colleagues at Wake Forest University studied the drinking habits of more than three-thousand people age 75 or older.

SINK: "We found that for people who started out in our study completely cognitively normal, moderate drinking - which would be on average one to two drinks a day - they were 37 percent less likely to develop dementia over the subsequent six years of our study."

BARAGONA: But Sink says people who began the study with memory problems did not see the same benefits.

SINK: "If anything, it looks like the more they drink, the faster they decline cognitively. And those in the heaviest drinking category, who were drinking more than two drinks a day on average, were almost twice as likely to progress to dementia compared to the participants who were not drinking but had mild memory problems."

BARAGONA: So Sink recommends that those with the beginnings of dementia should probably not drink. But for those with their full faculties, she says the benefits of moderate drinking are comparable to those of other positive activities.

SINK: "Older adults who walk three times a week have been found to have a 40 percent reduced risk of subsequently having dementia. So, drinking two drinks a day is a similar reduction in risk. However, I would not recommend that older adults drink instead of walk."

BARAGONA: Sink says keep walking; any exercise is good for many things besides preventing dementia.

She adds it's not clear if those who didn't drink before would benefit from starting. But a drink or two a day, she says, may help you stay sharp.

The research was presented this week at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease. . I'm Steve Baragona.

New website serves up multimedia re-creation of historic moon voyage

It's time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

As we remember the anniversary of Apollo 11, there's a new website that is offering a unique, second-by-second, real-time recreation of that first moon mission. combines animation with a vast library of archival audio, video, and photography.

LEWIS: "Over 100 hours of audio transmissions, news photos, and video, and speeches from [President] John F. Kennedy. And it may be the new way that we aggregate, in this digital world, history."

Regina Lewis is consumer advisor at AOL, the Internet company that is hosting We Choose The Moon, which is a project of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

The adventure began on Thursday, 40 years to the second after the three astronauts roared into space atop their Saturn V rocket.

JACK KING: "Liftoff, we have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11. (PAUSE) Tower cleared."

After that, it's the long flight to the moon, and then the historic moon landing itself. gets its name from a famous speech given by President Kennedy in 1962, after he set a goal of landing men on the moon before the end of the 1960s. You can hear an excerpt on the site.

KENNEDY: "We choose to go to the moon. [applause] We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Although the site tries to capture the historic feel of the '60s, some things are a bit updated. For example, NASA didn't have a Twitter feed in 1969.

LEWIS: "This is the first really historic event that's been captured to this degree. Might not be the last. And I think it's just a sign of the times and a sign of how we're going to capture history [in the future.] And if it is - wow! We're lucky to have the bar set at this level."

At the end of the real-time recreation, the site will allow you to relive the Apollo 11 mission on your own schedule at, or get the link to this and more than 250 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: Harry James - "How High The Moon"

You're listening to Our World, the weekly science and technology magazine from VOA News. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Farmers, warriors, builders: the hidden life of ants

From space, now, to the world just under our feet.

You might think of ants as those uninvited pests at a picnic. But they are a complex group of animals with an amazing degree of social organization. Now, as my colleague Rosanne Skirble reports, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington explores their hidden lives as farmers, builders, and warriors.

SKIRBLE: Biologist and nature photographer Mark Moffett uses his camera like a microscope. For 30 years, he's focused his lens on the tiny complex world of ants. He compares himself to a wildlife photographer. However, he says, instead of hiding behind a tree to capture a shot, he's normally shielded by a blade of grass.

MOFFETT: "You look out on the other side of the grass blade and you see that the ant is responding to you and will go into attack in a second. So you have to back off and hide again and sneak around to another viewpoint. It's exactly like going after a larger animal."

SKIRBLE: Moffett is a story teller. And to get his ant tales, he spends a lot of time on the ground or in the canope of trees, waiting and watching. The close-up photographs in "Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants" capture both the mundane and the dramatic aspects their daily lives...

MOFFETT: "…including the development of highways and the building of their cities, the communications systems, the detail in which they organize together, whether they form teams and assembly lines as people do in factories. All these things are found in the lives of ants. The speciality: as societies of ants get bigger, the ants get more specialized. It's the same in human cities."

SKIRBLE: Much like humans, ants are social creatures. They build homes, produce crops, nurture their young and bury their dead. Moffett's close-up photos in the Smithsonian exhibit follow army ants making roads, Australian bulldog ants tending their young, and honey pot ants engaged in battle.

MOFFETT: "They actually have a ritual in which they circle each other standing high on their legs and rotating in a circle around each other. And the colony with the shortest ants gets frightened and runs away. Now the cool thing is that one day I am out there watching these ants and I see that one short ant climbs up on a pebble in this picture and freaks out the taller ant. It's called cheating in humans."

SKIRBLE: Ants were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. There are 12,000 ant species today, but probably another 12,000 which have never been identified, according to researchers at the National Collection of Ants, housed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Mark Moffett enjoys the pursuit of those strange and rare species and documenting their lives. He was the first to photograph a species of mud ant in Ecuador eating snails.

MOFFETT: "They are called mud ants because. as you see in the picture, the ant covers itself in mud, and it moves in super slow mo[tion]. These are perhaps the slowest of ants. They barely move all day, and I found that they eat snails. And the fun thing was that here is a snail being chased by a mud ant and you see that it's making a dramatic left hand turn to make its escape."

SKIRBLE: The Smithsonian exhibit includes an aluminum cast of an underground ant city, and a living colony where visitors can watch a parade of harvester ants carry cut up leaves through a network of plastic tubes.

Mark Moffett hopes museum goers will gain a new understanding of the importance of ants to the ecology of the planet.

MOFFETT: "We don't actually see their lives, and getting those private lives up here at the Smithsonian where everyone can see them and forget that they're small, but understand that they have their own, in a sense, their own passions and dynamics that lead to all kinds of things that we would recognize in our own lives. So people can look for those here."

SKIRBLE: And, perhaps, Moffett adds, think twice before stepping on an ant, even if it's at a picnic.

Rosanne Skirble, VOA News, Washington.

Scientists continue to learn from moon rocks returned by Apollo astronauts

Finally today, we look at what may be, from a scientific perspective, perhaps the greatest legacy of the six Apollo moon landings - the rock and soil samples that the astronauts brought back with them.

Collecting a bit of the moon was one of the very first things Neil Armstrong did after he climbed down off the lunar module.

ARMSTRONG: "I'm going to step off the LM now. That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind."

In case anything went wrong and they had to abort the mission, he grabbed a sample of material from the surface, describing it as he scooped it up.

ARMSTRONG: "This is very interesting. It's a very soft surface, but here and there where I plug with the contingency sample collector, I run into a very hard surface. But it appears to be a very cohesive material of the same sort. I'll try to get a rock in here. Just a couple."

The six Apollo missions collected about 382 kilograms of rock and dust from the moon. And scientists have been studying pieces of it ever since, learning about the origin of the moon, among other things. They concluded that the moon was formed when an object about the size of Mars hit the Earth very early in our planet's history, producing a ring around the Earth, which eventually came together to form the moon.

LOFGREN: "So this is a whole new idea that came out of studying the samples, that nobody had a clue about when we went there."

Gary Lofgren is the curator of NASA's moon rocks. He says the scientific bounty of the moon rocks includes learning more about the moon, but not just the moon.

LOFGREN: "Well I think some of the most significant science is the age of the moon. We've determined that the age of the moon, as we see it is today, is very, very old. And being very old, it records the earliest solar system history. So we aren't just learning about the moon when we study the moon. We're learning about the origin of our solar system and the importance of impact craters in the evolution of our planets."

MIT planetary science professor Benjamin Weiss has worked with moon rocks, and he agrees.

WEISS: "It actually gives us clues about the early history of the Earth, which we can't learn about from studying Earth rocks, since there are so few rocks from that period."

Over millions of years on Earth, water erodes rock, continents shift around, volcanoes and earthquakes move mountains. These types of events erase the evidence of Earth's early history. Not so on the moon.

WEISS: 'The moon kind of has a fossil surface from the beginning of the solar system. And it kind of records the first stages of planetary evolution."

So for example, it was rocks from the moon that gave Earth scientists important information about the Late Heavy Bombardment, a period billions of years ago when meteors rained down on the Moon and Earth and the other inner planets.

WEISS: "And we learned about that event from studying lunar rocks, which recorded it. So we had no idea that this violent episode in Solar System history had even occurred until we brought back samples from the Moon."

Of the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon, only one of them was a trained geologist. Harrison Schmitt was on the last moon flight, Apollo 17, in 1972, and he was able to do some instant analysis on samples as he collected them during his first moon walk, noting the condition of small cavities called vesicles in the rock.

BOB PARKER (Mission Control): "Copy that."
SCHMITT: "The vesicles are not cleanly [smoothly] spherical. They're spherical but they have fairly rough outlines. They look as if there's been some recrystallization."

Scientists who want to study the moon rocks have to make a good case for the loan of the priceless specimens. Only about 400 samples are sent out each year for research or teaching. And MIT's Benjamin Weiss says 40 years of studying the moon rocks doesn't mean they've given up all their secrets.

WEISS: 'The lunar rocks keep giving back more and more. And it's because our techniques for analyzing lunar rocks keep getting better and better. So we keep going back to the same lunar samples with the new instrumentation that's developed every year and learning something new."

Benjamin Weiss of MIT, one of the scientists who is still studying the moon rocks, 40 years after the Apollo astronauts collected them and brought them back to Earth.

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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Usama Farag is the technical director.

And this is Art Chimes inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.