Saturday, July 18, 2009

Forty Years

The Wright Brothers first flew their Kitty Hawk on December 17th 1903.

On July 25th 1909, Louis Bleriot made the first aeroplane crossing of the Channel. On June 5th 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first aeroplane crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On May 21st 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris.

It was only 18 years from the 35 minute flight of Bleriot to the 35 hour flight of Lindbergh.

From that time, the pace of technological change seemed to accelerate dramatically. The invention of the jet engine by Sir Frank Whittle saw the first jet aeroplane, the Gloster-Whittle fly on May 15th 1941.

After the end of the Second World War, speeds became ever faster: the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager on October 14th 1947.

Finally, on 12th April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space. It was only 58 years since the first flight.

In December 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders became the first human beings to leave Earth, and go into orbit around the Moon on Apollo 8. Just over six months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to actually set foot upon the Moon on July 20th 1969. It was almost 60 years to the day since Bleriot had flown the channel.

Apollo was for me, as a child, and awe inspiring experience. From the majestic roar of the Saturn V rockets at lift off, to the journey through zero gravity, to the landing and exploration on the Moon itself and the eventual drama of splashdown, I would watch whatever was shown on the TV. The later missions, with the lunar rover, were already a giant stride beyond what Neil Armstrong's small step had achieved: each mission seemed to be one step closer to a permanent human presence on the Moon.

I remember that we were allowed home early from School to watch the splashdown of Apollo 17. At that time, we did not have the sense that space exploration would be diminished with the end of the Apollo programme. Although Apollo had been cut short, there was Skylab and it seemed that the simple momentum of getting to the Moon would lead to Mars and then maybe the stars beyond our world. It was a time when it seemed that all of the great works of science fiction would be seen in my lifetime. After all my grandparents generation had already seen the journey to the skies end up on the Moon. It had only been less than fifty years between the journey of Alcock and Brown and the Journey of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

Yet now, as we celebrate the incredible human achievement of the Apollo missions, it seems that we have made a series of wrong turnings. The Space shuttle turned out to be the classic example of a camel being a horse designed by committee and after delays and the disasters of Challenger and Columbia, it seems that the last eight shuttle missions will set the seal on a frustrating lack of ambition. By definition, space is not a place and our journey into space was a voyage to nowhere. The Moon, on the other hand was, and is, a very definite destination. Since Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan left the Moon, we have not sent human beings to explore.

Yet the unmanned space programme has achieved extraordinary things, from the Mariner and Pioneer probes to the outer solar system and the amazing pictures of deep space provided by the Hubble space telescope. This leads many to conclude that we should devote ourselves to sending our machines and not ourselves to explore the Universe. Yet this is to miss the point. Of course we should continue to learn as much as we can about what surrounds us, but the reality is that one day our curiosity for exploration will have to be satisfied.

Over forty years we have created the power of computers, developed carbon and nano technologies, and digitised our world, we have created instant communication and instant access to knowledge. yet we have not gone back to the Moon. The technology of information and communication is at a level that could not be conceived of forty years ago, and yet the proposed Orion Space rocket will use substantially the same engines that were used on the Saturn V all those years ago.

If you had asked by seven year old self what I would see in my middle aged years, I suspect he would have expected Moon bases and a Mars landing, yet now it may only be today's seven year olds who may see these things, and I am not sure that I will even live that long. Orion is currently only tentatively proposed for a Moon landing in 2019- fifty years after the first Moon landing.

Just before Apollo 8 lifted off from Cape Kennedy, the Astronauts received a visit from Charles Lindbergh. It was, said Borman, Lovell and Anders, a profoundly moving moment as one of the great legends of early aviation passed the torch to a new generation.

Twenty four humans have journeyed to the Moon:

Apollo 8
Frank Borman, born March 14th 1928
Jim Lovell, born March 25th 1928 (& Apollo 13)
Bill Anders, born October 17th 1933

Apollo 10
Tom Stafford, born September 17th 1930
John Young, born September 24th 1930 (& Apollo 16)
Gene Cernan, born March 14th 1934 (& Apollo 17)

Apollo 11
Neil Armstrong, born August 5th 1930
Buzz Aldrin, born January 20th 1930
Michael Collins, born October 31st 1930

Apollo 12
Pete Conrad, born June 2nd 1930, died July 8th 1999
Al Bean, born March 15th 1932
Dick Gordon, born October 25th 1929

Apollo 13
Fred Haise, born November 14th 1933
Jack Swigert, born August 30th 1931, died December 27th 1982

Apollo 14
Al Shepherd, born November 18th 1923, died July 21st 1988
Ed Mitchell, born September 17th 1930
Stu Roosa, born August 16th 1933, died Decmber 12th 1994

Apollo 15
Dave Scott, born June 6th 1932
Jim Irwin, born March 17th 1930, died August 8th 1991
Al Worden, born February 7th 1932

Apollo 16
Charles Duke, born October 3rd 1935
Ken Mattingly, born March 17th 1936

Apollo 17
Jack Schmitt, born July 3rd 1935
Ron Evans, born November 10th 1933, died April 7th 1990.

Only 18 are left alive today. Who, I wonder, would be able to pass on the flame as Lindbergh did.

It seems now, looking back over the past forty years that the triple blow of the economic crisis of the oil shocks, the wretched failure of Vietnam and the horrid scandal of the fall of Richard Nixon diminished the confidence of America, which had been the prime driver of the triumph of Apollo.

Let us hope that at least some of the Apollo Astronauts can see their predecessors match their achievements. Perhaps at this time of economic adjustment and crisis, it is more necessary than ever to look to the stars.

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