Scientific breakthroughs on the launch pad

 By Nicholas Newman

Fifty years ago, a Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 mission modules, loaded with some of the most advanced technology the world had ever seen, rolled out to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched using a Saturn V rocket on a trip to the moon. On 20 July that same year, an estimated 650 million people watched Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “… one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”…

For many, the moon landing was the most spectacular event of the century. It was the result of decades of research by engineers, scientists and technologists in many countries, including Britain’s William Congreve, Russia’s Sergei Korosec and Germany’s Wernher von Braun.

Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

Apollo’s Innovations

Many Apollo-era innovations are now mainstream, including cordless gadgets, scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and liquid-cooled garments for race drivers and firefighters. Apollo also pioneered the laser as an instrument to measure the actual distance between the moon and the earth. Lasers are now integral in carbon fibre communication cables, colour printers and missile guidance systems. Whilst the use of high-energy lasers for military use is still experimental, industrial cutting lasers are becoming increasingly commonplace.

How lasers work (in theory)

Afterward, the innovations that made Apollo’s journey possible were further developed and widely adopted. They are now found in the microchips embedded in all electronic gadgets, including smart phones and flat screen televisions, which in turn fueled further and rapid technological change – a virtual snowball of innovations that permeate today’s office and factory workplaces and homes.
The exponential increase in computing power has been staggering. At the time of Apollo, computers were the size of several rooms, and their power was low in comparison to today. The arrival of microchips during the mid-1970s miniaturized the computer and allowed them to move from laboratories and big firms’ computing centres to office desktops and a decade later to the portable computer, also known as the laptop.
Today, there are 5G mobile phones. These innovations are all underpinned by Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented, resulting in ever more powerful devices.

Current innovations

A half-century after Apollo, humanity is on the cusp of a new wave of discontinuous innovation known as Industry 4.0, which is based on automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, the cloud and cognitive computing.
Additive manufacturing machinery is set to transform the manufacture of complex parts and equipment across industries, including energy, aviation and medicine, since it gives engineers the ability to quickly build precise components in complex geometrical shapes, such as honeycomb structures. This innovation is being used by Siemens to make component parts of gas turbine blades.
Advancements in nanotechnology are improving medicine through the creation and adoption of “lab-on-a-chip gadgets, which enable point-of-care testing of patients in real-time. Moreover, nanomaterial surfaces on body implants improve wear and resist infection.

Example of a modular "lab-on-a-chip" for stem cell studies. Several microfluidic components and sensing modules are integrated together for cell isolation, detection and counting, viability or migration assays and differentiation studies (

In the skies, space flight is no longer the preserve of the state thanks to a new generation of technologies, including re-usable launch systems that underpin private sector entrants, such as Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which aim to bring space to commercial customers. Likewise, the development of solar sails (also called light sails or photon sails) to propel spacecraft using solar radiation pressure from sunlight on large mirrors could make space launches of the future commonplace.
Also in the skies, hypersonic flight is a possibility with a new type of jet engine technology, which its promoters expect will reduce the flight from London to Sydney by less than three hours. America’s Boeing and Britain’s SABRE are currently developing engines that are able to fly at speeds of up to Mach 5 (3,704 mph, 5,961 km/h).
Back on earth, artificial intelligence, known more commonly as AI, could transform the world of work by normalizing the use of a digital computer or computer-controlled robotic to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings. The robot or computer of the future will be endowed with human characteristics, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize or learn from past experience. Already, the UK’s National Grid is using drones to help inspect its 7,200 miles of overhead lines around England and Wales. Equipped with high-resolution still, video and infrared cameras, the drones are deployed to assess the steelwork, wear and corrosion and faults such as damaged conductors. AI is used to determine the overall condition of the grid and whether it needs to replaced or repaired.
Quantum computing uses subatomic particles’ ability to exist in more than one place, and is simultaneously transforming the energy sector’s “big data” processing and analysis. This technology makes computers more efficient and processing operations faster and is energy efficient. Major energy companies, such as Italy’s oil major, Eni Spa, is already using such quantum computers to speed up processing of mega quantities of data across its operations of evaluating seismic data from exploration activity and development of oil and gas reservoirs in refining and petrochemical operations.
Lastly, blockchain, a decentralized, distributed and public digital ledger, records individual transactions across many computers so that no record can be altered retrospectively by constituent members without the alteration of all subsequent blocks. In effect, blockchain is a new way of handling, processing and recording data and could enhance cyber security. Still in its infancy, it is being tested in cargo handling logistics by Maersk to handle the paperwork for shipping a container across the world by sea, air and road. In the health sector, blockchain could help fight counterfeit drugs, enabling patients to actually trace the source of medicines and the drugs they contain.

These transformative technologies are still in their infancy of general application but will, in coming years, spread from the laboratory to workplaces, homes and space as did those inaugurated by Apollo.

Cover image by: OIST, Amy Shen Unit

READ MORE: MIT’s 10 breakthrough technologies by Peter Ward

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.