Friday, 17 July 2009

Blame It On The Boogie

At 0256 GMT on Tuesday 21 July it will be precisely 40 years since Neil Armstrong's left foot first touched the surface of the Moon.

The hatch had been opened 20 minutes earlier and the Lunar Module (LEM) had landed at 2017 the night before with the immortal words, 'Houston, the Eagle has landed' which was a line Armstrong had nicked from a Higgins book. Armstrong had literally wrestled the LEM to the surface with just seconds of fuel left and far past the target landing site. Such was the nerve of the man, having put the craft down he and his co-pilot, Buzz Aldrin, had a few sarnies and admired the view before getting a bit of shut-eye.

I loved the whole Apollo missions and I lived every moment of the flights after Apollo 11. On honeymoon, my wife and I went to see Apollo 13 and I relived the incredible story of heroism, teamwork and endeavour that got a tiny tin of metal containing 3 live bodies, a massive hole and precious little oxygen home from the vastness of space. I could remember all those space programmes with James Burke, Raymond Baxter and the US bulletins led by Walter Cronkite and feeling the blow of every new obstacle that was put in front of NASA as they tried to get the men home.

If you want an excellent and quirky insight into the minds of those who went to the Moon, then read 'Moondust' by Andrew Smith which contains his interviews with those moon-walkers who are still alive. But to think of being in a tiny capsule hurtling in nothingness without a hope of being rescued if something failed makes me shiver with claustrophobia let alone inadequacy at the skills of these men.

So Where Did It All Go?

The moonwalkers were thought to be the trailblazers, the vanguard of a large infestation of the Moon and beyond. But as with Michael Jackson's moonwalk, the whole program stopped abruptly and it was blamed on the 'Political Boogie'. The US was fighting an ever more demanding war in Vietnam and the Russians had lost interest - the race for space petered out very quickly. The culmination is that we send effectively dustbins designed by the Open University to Mars with a parachute, some old Tonka Toy wheels and a camera. The results are less than spectacular.

Yet the Space program spawned so much. The suits worn by the astronauts brought us Kevlar, at the heart of all bullet-proof jackets. The microchip burst forward as computation was miniaturised from the acreages of special rooms with the advances in silicon circuitry. The computing power aboard Apollo 11, programmed by a lone 23 year graduate, was no more powerful than the average car tripometer and yet it took these men across 250,000 miles of space to precise spots and safely back. They tested most of all the theories of modern physics and the behaviour of celestial bodies by using gravitational coupling of the Earth and Moon to 'slingshot' the vessels there and back. The underneath of the Command Module had a heat shield that could withstand the enormous temperatures of re-entry and the ropes that held the parachute to the craft on landing could withstand the powerful bite of a shark. The thickness of walls of the LEM in some places was no more than a couple of sheets of aluminium foil.

The facts and technology are breathtaking and yet it all ended unceremoniously and no man has ever returned to the Moon. Makes you think how aliens can zap so far across the worlds and arrive here, not even call in for a cuppa and then screech off into the distance after only performing a few hideous medical experiments on the genitals of country yokels in Mid-America. Seems such a waste of fuel and resources, and intelligence.

The Doubters

Of course, there are many doubters. The Van Allen Belt is the usual objection raised. This is a belt of radiation that effectively shrouds the earth from a distance and you have to cross it to get to the Moon. The structure of the Apollo crafts would never have been able to shield the astronauts from the potentially lethal doses of radiation it is assumed they would have to endure. I have no idea whether this is the case but it would seem the Americans ploughed on regardless - given that a few of the astronauts did subsequently die of cancer, perhaps they did suffer consequences. There are those who reckon if you look at the photos from the surface then the position of the shadows and 'fluttering of the flag' are indications that the whole thing was filmed on a set in Hollywood. Again I have no idea whether this is the case or not.

Neil Morrisey hosted a great program on this and showed a guy in Australia who every day shone a laser at a mirror that the Apollo missions had left on the Moon and he uses it to measure the exact distance between the Moon and Earth. It seems proof enough that someone went there and set it up. It also shows that little by little, the Moon is drifting away from us despite the fact we seem to be in gravitational harmony.

I Don't Care

Well, I am not bothered what the doubters think and I couldn't give a stuff about their arguments. I lived a childhood obsessed with the achievements of the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Lovell and others.

I think I will watch Apollo 13 for just the 10,000th time and see if they do actually make it backs despite over 4 minutes of lost contact during re-entry. You couldn't make that sort of stuff up, you know.

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