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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.
The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.
In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.
Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.
The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.
But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.
A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.
Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.
Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).
Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."
Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.
Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.
5 million: A hacker has stolen the personal and financial information of as many as five million citizens and foreign residents in Bulgaria, a country of about 7 million people. "The state of your cybersecurity is a parody," announced the hacker in an email. It's certainly starting to look that way.
5.1: In 2018, the number of US drug overdose deaths fell for the first time since 1999, according to preliminary data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows 72,224 overdose deaths in 2017 and 68,557 in 2018, a drop of 5.1 percent.
700 Billion: China has lent more than $700 billion to other countries. That's more than double the amount loaned by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund combined and makes China "the world's largest official creditor." A new study suggests that half of that sum is hidden from institutional lenders.
400,000: It took 400,000 people—including engineers, scientists, mechanics, technicians, pilots, divers, seamstresses, secretaries and others—to send Apollo 11 to the moon and to bring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins safely home. And while the faces we're most familiar are almost entirely white and male, the larger list of those who made it possible is much more diverse.
Europe has selected a new president of the European Commission. Last night, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen won support from a majority of members of European Parliament to lead the executive body that shapes policy for the world's largest economic bloc. The final result was a close shave, however — she won by a margin of just nine votes out of 757 — and there's something in the outcome for everyone to hate.
For many anti-EU populists, von der Leyen's appointment confirms their view that the EU is undemocratic and doesn't respect ordinary citizens. Why? Because she wasn't selected by the voters who went to the polls in the recent EU parliamentary elections — or even indirectly by the lawmakers who won those seats. She was hand-picked by leaders of the 28 EU member states, who side-stepped parliament after better-known candidates chosen by various political factions within the legislature failed to attract enough support from the national governments. Anti-EU politicians like France's Marine Le Pen will spend the next five years reminding us that von der Leyen's presidency reflects everything that's wrong with Brussels.
For Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and other European leaders who backed von der Leyen, her narrow margin of approval gives her a weak mandate as she confronts huge challenges such as the EU's fraught relations with the US and China, showdowns over Italy's budget, erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the economic and political fallout of the UK's exit (or not) from the bloc, and the EU's drive to regulate Big Tech.
Von der Leyen herself, who is from the center-right, made significant concessions to get her nomination through with parties that are deeply suspicious of her. Those included a promise to propose a so-called "green deal" within her first 100 days in office, reform the minimum wage, and launch a push for EU-wide legislation on artificial intelligence. Von der Leyen also pledged to reform the process for selecting future candidates for Commission president and to give the EU Parliament a "stronger role in shaping and designing" the EU's future. Now that von der Leyen has secured the closest thing the EU has to a top job, she'll be spending much of her political capital trying to deliver on those promises.
Jacob Zuma on the witness stand — The 77-year-old former president of South Africa will be in court in Durban throughout the week to answer questions from a judge investigating endemic corruption, influence-peddling, and "state capture" by business interests during his tumultuous nine-year tenure. Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and says he's the victim of a "conspiracy." We're watching to see whether the ex-president uses his time on the stand to undermine his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been struggling to unite the ruling African National Congress since guiding the party to an election victory in May.
Ebola in the city — The second-worst outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever has reached a dangerous new milestone: On Sunday, the Democratic Republic of Congo's health ministry confirmed the first case of the disease in Goma, a city of 1 million inhabitants on the border with Rwanda that serves as a hub for people traveling throughout central Africa. While local authorities say the situation is under control, the presence of Ebola in a big city increases the risk that the disease could spread further. Nearly 2,500 people have been infected and more than 1,600 people have died in the current outbreak.
Heavily armed Italian neo-Nazis — Italian police who launched a series of raids on a neo-Nazi group in the northern city of Turin on Monday seized a substantial arsenal of illicit weapons, including a French-made air-to-air missile that once belonged to the Qatari military. The raids were tied to a broader investigation into Italians who had fought alongside Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. We are watching this as a grim illustration of the reach and (fire)power of transnational crime groups and non-state actors of all stripes.
What we are ignoring:
Saudi Arabia's allure for dissidents — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is making a fresh push to convince opponents of the Saudi regime to come home. One exile anonymously quoted by the Financial Times said a go-between had promised "there would be no harm or jail time" if they decided to return to the country and stop criticizing the government's human rights violations and lack of accountability. Nine months after dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered (as part of a plot in which the crown prince was allegedly involved), we doubt many of the young monarch's critics are buying it — and neither are we.
140: Pakistan removed the last restrictions on international flights across its territory on Tuesday, ending a 140-day blackout imposed after an altercation with nuclear-armed arch-rival India that led to air strikes in Pakistan and the downing of an Indian fighter jet. The nearly five-month ban forced airlines serving India and other destinations across Asia to cancel flights and make lengthy detours around closed airspace.
1,187: The opioid epidemic isn't just a US problem. Nearly 1,200 people died from drugs in Scotland in 2018 — around 86 percent of cases involved opioids like heroin. Per capita, that's nearly 3 times the drug death rate for the whole UK and more than any other EU country.
2.7 million: There are 2,667,000 foreigners living in Japan now, or just over 2 percent of the total population. That represents an increase of 170,000 over the past year. The country's aging economy needs more young workers, but immigration is a contentious topic in Japan, one of the world's most ethnically homogenous countries.
17: There are only 17 countries left in the world that maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than with Beijing. (You have to choose because Beijing, which sees Taiwan as part of China, will not grant full relations to countries that have formal ties with the island). Of those, over half are in Central America or the Caribbean. Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, landed in Haiti over the weekend to begin a tour of the region.