Feeling a little moonstruck today . . .

Christmas Eve 1968. I can remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing.

I was trudging around the streets of my hometown of Leek, in North Staffordshire, ankle-deep in snow (quite a novelty for that time of year) delivering Christmas mail as a temporary postman, something that I had done each year since about 1964.

So why do I remember this Christmas Eve especially? The newspapers were full of it.

Apollo 8 had lifted off just three days earlier from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make the first manned orbit of the Moon, paving the way for the historic Apollo 11 mission seven months later, the first of only six manned Moon landings, thereby fulfilling President Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, and bring him safely back to Earth. It’s hard to believe that, with Apollo 17, the manned landings were over by December 1972.

Earthrise on 24 December 1968, taken by crew member Bill Anders on board Apollo 8. This photo must be one of the most widely viewed images of all time. This image was catalogued by Johnson Space Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: AS08-14-2383.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, commanded by Frank Borman (who remembers him now?) with crew members Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Bill Anders, entered Moon orbit, becoming the first humans to leave Earth orbit, completely isolated from the Earth as they sped behind the Moon, and experiencing the wonder of Earthrise.

So why has this Apollo mission come to my mind today of all days?

Well, I’d gone downstairs in the dark just around 6 am to make our usual early morning cup of tea, and heard the rain falling quite heavily, just as had been forecast. Imagine my surprise a couple of hours later when I looked out of the kitchen window to see a clear, bright sky, not a cloud in sight.

And there, setting towards the western horizon, was the waning Moon just a couple of days past its full Hunter’s Moon phase.

The setting Moon over Bromsgrove around 8:15 am today, 26 October 2018.

And as I gazed up into the sky, making out various details of the Moon’s surface, some 384,400 km away, I found myself marveling at the fact that humans had actually walked on the surface of this extraterrestrial body that has fascinated humans since time immemorial. I began to ‘feel’ its power, its influence, its attraction.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

Half a century on, and that period of intense lunar exploration hardly seems possible. Did it really happen? That’s an idea that some conspiracy theorists promote – but not me I hasten to add.

What also amazes me is that there is probably more computing power in your average smartphone than that which took humans to the Moon in Apollo 8 and on the other lunar missions. Thank you, Margaret Hamilton!

 

 

The Man [on] the Moon (updated 20 July 2019)

FullMoon2010 copyDo you remember where you were on Sunday 20 July 1969? I do.

I was attending an ecology field course in Norfolk having just completed my second year at the University of Southampton (studying botany and geography). I was one of a group of 20 or so botany and combined honours students spending two weeks studying plant ecology under course tutors Drs Joyce Lambert and John Manners.

Joyce Lambert (ecologist) and John Manners (mycologist)

Looking back, I think we had a good time, visiting the Norfolk Broads (the origin of which Joyce Lambert had determined many years earlier), and the Breckland, among other places. The first week was spent on site visits, and during the second, we split into pairs to carry out a series of mini-projects at Wheatfen Broad, home to celebrated Norfolk naturalist and broadcaster, EA ‘Ted’ Ellis.

We stayed at Wymondham College, a boarding school in the village of Wymondham about 15 miles southwest of Norwich. Now a state day and boarding school for pupils (including international students), in the late 1960s it catered more to families from rural Norfolk, if I recall correctly.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, there we were ensconced in Wymondham College, almost the only occupants as the school was closed for the summer holiday. It was also more than a mile walk to the nearest pub, which we undertook almost every evening once any after dinner studies had been completed.

During the first week, however, Apollo 11 had blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral) in Florida on 16 July on its way to the Moon, for the first landing mission. A momentous occasion, and one we did not want to miss. The problem was that there was no television to watch.

But four days later, very late on the evening of 20 July and in the early hours of 21 July¹, we were all huddled around a TV in the common room, watching rather grainy live pictures from the Moon as Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar landing module and uttered those forever famous words: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

We had clubbed together and rented a TV—much to the disapproval of Joyce Lambert and John Manners—from a local company so that we could participate in one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. I don’t think botanical productivity was particularly high at Wheatfen Broad the next morning. We were a group of very sleepy botanists staggering around up to our knees in Norfolk mud as we tried to work out plant succession in the various communities we were tasked to study.

And of course, just a few days ago it was the 46th anniversary of the first Moon landing, bringing back so many other memories as well.

It’s also interesting to see that this important anniversary has brought all the Moon landing deniers out of the woodwork. First Moon landing astronaut Buzz Aldrin and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox (from the University of Manchester) were soon on social media refuting these denials.

Whatever next will the deniers get their teeth into?

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¹ And, on the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, I realised that one detail at least in the account above was wrong, and which I have now corrected. Originally I had written that we watched Armstrong step on the Moon on 20 July.

Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon at 20:17 UTC on 20 July 1969, a Sunday. In the UK, with British Standard Time in place (UTC +1), that would have then been 21:17. The moonwalk didn’t begin until 02:56:15 UTC (Monday 21 July), when Armstrong uttered those memorable words: That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

We were sat in front of the TV watching the landing and moonwalk until at least 4 am. No wonder we didn’t approach fieldwork after breakfast with any degree of enthusiasm.

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Incidentally, on 16 July past, at about 22:30 (21:30 UTC) there was a partial eclipse of the Moon, that we easily observed in the southeast sky from our bedroom window.