Excitement

It was a truly exciting time. They went to the Moon in peace for all mankind. Everyone around the world watched it if they could.

We look back now after 50 years of technological progress, and find we couldn’t do it now. We don’t have the expertise, plain and simple. Despite iPhones, the Internet, Lady Gaga and heart transplants, no suitable technology is there.

In those days, it was a time for optimism. It’s hard to believe, given the way the USA is these days under the current President.

So, let’s give a big credit to the many science/space films there are, especially In The Shadow Of The Moon, which is astronauts talking about their experiences, and Apollo 11.

I saw this at the IMAX in London just recently. In 90 minutes or so, with no talking heads, no commentary, a few graphics and some appropriate music, it captures that optimism.

Most of the footage from space has been seen before (there is relatively little of it around of course, but it all looks as good as it can be), but the shots of the crowds at take off and of the control rooms is just great. Even though you know what happens, it’s hard not to get totally involved in it all. At my screening, there was a huge round of appluase at the end.

Don’t miss it. The bigger screen, the better.

My interest in space lead me to joing the British Interplanetary Society. I was a member and a fellow for 30 odd years.

The trip to the Moon

Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969. The journey was a few times around the Earth, a quarter of a million miles to the Moon, landing and then back.

Most of the mission had been done before, just not the landing on the Moon, exploration and take off from the surface. There was no guarantee that any part of it would not have a failure. It’s hard to understand just how brave those three astronauts in particular were.

If you have ever seen any real spacecraft close up, it’s pretty alarming. There is no assembly line for this. It’s hand-built. You can see the rivets, the bent bits of metal, the whole craft looks crude and a little home made. It isn’t, of course, but that’s the impression when you see one close up.

The Saturn V rocket is huge. I believe it is the most powerful machine ever built by man.

As we know from shuutle accidents, it only takes one small rubber ring to fail and there’s potential for disaster.

And we alsways assume that computers did everything. Well, they did have computer control for sure, but much less power than the average cell phone today.

So, during the flight they had problems. In fact, on the launchpad they had problems, but nothing they couldn’t deal with, and they landed on the Moon in prime time, July 21 1969.

In the UK it was the middle of the night. Even though it was the most historic achievement by man ever, the greatest adventure and true history, I was sent to bed and missed it.

Apollo 11

We all remember the so-called Apollo 1 fire and the sad deaths of three astronauts. It seemed that that would kick NASA backwards so far as to possibly fail in its mission, but, as we know, it didn’t.

Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to leave the Earth entirely, orbiting the Moon and forcing Christmas religion on the world. I saw the capsule recently, in Chicago.

It’s very small and claustrophobic. I know astronauts were short, but there’s only the space of the front of a big car.

The 11 crew were Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. Two would land on the surface of the Moon, one would remain in orbit, to help with docking, doing experiments and so on.

Of course, for lots of the journey they had the Lunar Module for extra space.

This isn’t their LEM, which was lost in space somewhere, but it is similar. It’s the thing that actually landed on the Moon, and took off again. Parts of it are barely thicker than aluminium cooking foil.

You can find these exhibits in Chicago, at the Science and Industry Museum. I believe it’s the largest museum in the USA.

The sixties

I was born in 1954, meaning I was in my mid-teens in the late 1960s.

I don’t really think I remember Sputnik, but I do certainly remember coming home from school, seeing the tv on and Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth. The first man to leave this planet, if only a short distance, and come back safely.

If he were alive today, he would be hugely famous, 60 years after his achievements.

I don’t remember the first American in space, Alan Shepard, but do definitely recall John Glenn being the first American to orbit the planet.

I was hooked on space. I knew all about the early astronauts, not so much about cosmonauts, for obvious reasons. My favourite was John Young, who died recently.

I could tell you all sorts about the missions, what happened, who achieved what, and, of course, Apollo flights to the Moon. Following Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon before the decade is out and return him safely to Earth, the beginning of the space race.

I always suspect that, had Kennedy not been assassinated, the trip to the Moon might have been rather different. But, as we know, Apollo 11 landed on the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969, fifty years ago this month nd a full year and a half before the dealine set by JFK.