What was the point?

You can ask the question, what was the point of space exploration and Apollo 11, what did it achieve?

In some ways, superficial things. In many ways, it was a deeply profound, great achievement in history.

It fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge.

It was great PR.

It beat the Russians in the cold war space race.

Geological samples started to give us new insight into the Earth, our origin, the universe.

New manufacturing techniques, new things that were invented for space exploration, have impacted our lives ever since. No, not just non-stick frying pans, but eart pacemakers, computers, cell phones, the Internet, communications satellites, velcro, artificial limbs, the list is almost endless.

But, it proved it could be done. Man has finally taken a step off our home world.

Neil Armstrong

Let’s just say a few words about Neil Armstrong.

No, wait. I know that the success of Apollo 11 was not just down to him. There were hundreds of thousands of people who contributed over the years, and a crew of three not just one.

Armstrong was the gold standard of NASA astronaut, but all three on this mission were of the highest class. While Collins is fairly chatty, and even now has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about space, the other two were quiet and reserved. This is surely why they were picked – a laughy, jokey crew in space may well have been entertaining, but had something gone wrong, and it did, fingers would be pointed. NASA wanted to give the mission the best chance to succeed, and it did.

Of course, the whole world was watching them. Literally.

I have never had the privlege of meeting any astronaut. I know they are a special class of person.

Neil Armstrong had been on previous missions. He had a track record of dealing with issues in a cool, calm and methodical way. he was a person who was not easily flustered, could make decisions under pressure, a highly intelligent man.

I am not saying anything against any other astronaut or cosmonaut. But, if landing on the Moon is one of the greatest achievements in human history, if not THE greatest, then only one man can be the first in all of history to walk on another celestial body first, and it was Armstrong. There can only be one first.

When the lunar module was coming in to land, computer errors were a distraction and a possible abort situation arose more than once. Approaching the landing spot, Armstrong decided it was unsuitable, so manually landed the ship with barely seconds of fuel remaining. This ability to act so coolly saved the mission, and possibly their lives.

Armstrong was the first down the ladder. I am sure I read somewhere that his boot actually touched the surface by accident before the ceremonial stepping off the LEM, but I can’t find that now. He said his famous words. He took a sample of soil, looked around a bit, then was joined by Aldrin.

They had been required by law to post a USA flag up there, a claim for American soil, as ever. They took a call from Nixon, someone who had had nothing to do with the space programme, trying to get in on the act as ever.

They deployed experiments, took samples and photographs. Then it was home time, in less than 24 hours.

I used to belong to the British Interplanetary society. Someone once asked if there were any photographs of Armstrong on the Moon, not tv pictures but actual photos. I believe some were found by Douglas Arnold.

Then they were back, listening to Nixon again, going on about sports, and all three lives had been changed forever, but especially Neil Armstrong’s.

Space odyssey

Just also putting things into context, the Moon was reached for the first time at the very end of 1968 (by humans) and the landing was 1969.

One of the great science fiction films of all time, possibly one of the great films of all time, was released the year before ie before we had even landed on the Moon. I speak of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now, you can look back on this film and highlight mistakes (the colour of the Earth seems a bit pale, for example, and the walking on the Moon seems wrong – a bunny hop seems more approriate), but we know director Kubrick was a stickler for detail and believeability.

I am never sure what the title has to do with anything. It is not clear what part of the film, if any, takes place in 2001. The only indication of a time is one caption, for 18 months later. I have always suspected that the date was chosen not as part of a realistic prediction of where space exploration would be, but simply as the first year of a new millennium, a fresh start to history.

Space travel is nowhere near that depiction in the film. Easy shuttle flights to a space station, bases on the Moon, suspended animation and missions to Jupiter are just as far off now as they were then, disappointingly.