I grew up in an era full of hope for space exploration. I was born in 1974 – 5 years after the first moon landing and 2 years after the last. My earliest TV memories are of a couple of astronauts bouncing around the lunar surface in a vast, grey desolate landscape on a buggy made of gold. I watched shuttle launches with a sense of awe at what these lucky people were doing, wonder at the footage they sent back of the Earth from space and sadness at the lives lost in the two shuttle disasters. But that never lessened my desire to see humans (like me) explore the stars and in that time it seemed inevitable.
My good friend John Topley recommended I read a book called “Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey” by Michael Collins. Since John’s been right about everything in the past I added it to my wishlist and as soon as I had some time I bought the book and read it from cover to cover. He was indeed correct, it’s a tremendous read and it scratched an itch I realised I’d had all my life.
While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were swanning around the surface of the moon Mike was floating in space orbiting in the Command Module, waiting for their return. He then piloted them back to earth. The book was written in 1974 and charts his early career as a military pilot, test pilot and then eventually as an astronaut preparing to – with a bit of luck – fly to the moon and back. It makes for a fascinating read on many levels.
I was and still am absolutely fascinated not just by the vastness of space, but the little blue marble we live on. Even to this day when I see footage of Earth from space or stare at the following classic “earthrise” NASA photo I feel shivers down my spine. It’s just such an amazing sight.
But reading about what actually went into the moon landings has given me a new respect for the people involved. Striving to put a man on the moon may have been politically motivated, but whatever the motivation, its legacy has reached far beyond the moon itself. But more about that later.
Being given a project to put a man on the moon must have been terrifying from an engineering point of view. Where do you begin? How do you develop and test the technology? How do you maximise your chance of success?
Well, in what must surely be the most impressive engineering exercise of all time, they broke the whole project down into a series of small deliverables, each building on the lessons learned from the previous one. This began with Project Mercury whose ultimate goal was to put a man in low earth orbit and push the envelope in each mission.
Next up was Project Gemini which focussed on extra vehicular activity (space walks), rendezvous procedures (undocking and docking two orbiting crafts), navigation systems (there was no GPS back then and if you wanted to fly to the moon and back you really needed to be able to know exactly where you were and what direction you were pointing), space suits and a host of other technologies that would be needed for the moon trips. This was where Michael Collins came into the picture and when I realised just how unbelievably hard being an astronaut was. You needed balls of steel, ace piloting skills, be super-cool under pressure and be a maths genius. Frequently all at the same time.
Take Gemini 10, the mission Michael Collins was on. It was a 3 day orbital mission containing:
- 2 rendezvous procedures (docking and undocking with two other craft in orbit). If you’re orbiting the earth and want to catch up to another craft that’s away in the distance you’d expect to just fire the rockets to speed up, catch up to the craft, slow down, dock, job done. Except in orbit that doesn’t work. Speeding up puts you into a higher orbit so you actually get further away from the craft so you have to slow down, drop into a lower, faster orbit, then speed up to catch up. Except the calculations to do it are mind boggling. And there were no MacBook Airs in the 60s, so this all had to be worked out while flying the cramped ship by hand.
- 2 EVAs. There had only been 3 space walks ever attempted and they had all turned out to be nightmarishly hard work. Manoeuvring in zero gravity is an exercise in Newtons third law of motion (even the tiniest pressure exerted in one direction would result in an equal and opposite counter-reaction – making even holding onto the edge of a space craft very tough) and in pressurised suits, completely exhausting.
- 15 separate scientific experiments including testing various navigation computers and techniques requiring detailed manual, mind-sapping calculations.
Oh yes, and there was also the small matter of eating, sleeping, dealing with all the unexpected situations that would occur (every mission was a journey into the unknown) and of course punching through the atmosphere and getting back to earth. And that was just a 3 day mission!
Next up came the Project Apollo and the ultimate goal was of course to land men on the moon and return in one piece. It didn’t start well as the crew of Apollo 1 were killed on the launch pad when their oxygen filled craft caught fire. With the loss of several astronauts to various plane crashes, this highlighted just how dangerous space exploration was and is. They eventually carried on having worked out what caused the fire and how best to deal with it and the Apollo missions laid the path to the moon.
The astronauts never really knew who was going to get the shot at landing on the moon and of course while Michael Collins was in the command module orbiting while Aldrin and Armstrong went to the surface, that was as close as he was ever going to get.
The command module that was home for Michael Collins on Apollo 11
The work that it took to get to the moon was staggering and the qualities required to be an astronaut really were incredible. While I always looked at them as supermen before, I hold them in even higher regard now. But for me the legacy of Apollo is not about the moon, it’s about the earth.
The focus for the whole program was beating the Russians to the moon, but as soon as the astronauts beamed back footage of an ever shrinking blue marble while they sped to the moon, the world was forever changed. Only 24 humans that have ever lived have gazed upon the whole planet and I can only imagine what that must feel like, but for me at least seeing the pictures and film of the earth just make me see how fragile and beautiful it is. It’s no coincidence that the green movement took off around the same time.
While it’s undoubtably a great shame that space exploration has gone backwards since the 1970s, we owe a great deal of our modern technology to the work NASA did in making it happen. You can see an exhaustive list here. Had we carried on who knows what we’d have created to cope with trips to Mars – energy production, propulsion and so on. Ah well, maybe next century!
My favourite quote was from man-of-few-words Neil Armstrong. He said of his time on the moon: “it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth”. When asked if it made him feel like a giant he pondered for a while before replying “no, it made me feel very very small”.
When I look up at the moon in the night sky and see a black shadow across it I now see it in my mind from the point of view of space. The sun on one side, the earth in the middle casting a shadow on the moon on the other. That black shadow is us. And it makes me feel very very small too.