Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Moon landing's 40th anniversary

As the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing is marked, we look back at the historic voyage

Forty years ago today three American men proved the sky was not the limit.

On July 20, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin became the first men to tread on extraterrestrial soil.

The moment came just 66 years after the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane and captured the public imagination like no other scientific feat before or since.

It was also a fitting epitaph for President John F Kennedy, who had set Nasa the goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the 1960s

WINNING THE SPACE RACE

Until the moon landing, the Soviet Union was winning the 'Space Race' hands down — scoring a series of firsts with the first satellite Sputnik and then Laika the dog blazing a trail for Yuri Gagarin, who breached the final frontier in 1961. Further successes followed as Valentina Tereshkova became the first spacewoman in 1963 and Alexei Leonov pioneered the space walk in 1965.

Nasa's scientific inspiration was naturalised American Wernher von Braun, who cut his rocket-making teeth with the Nazi V1 and V2 bombs that wreaked destruction on London during the Second World War.

Von Braun's team built the giant 363 foot Saturn V rockets which fired the astronauts on the 240,000 mile journey to the Moon.

Mission Control in Houston was staffed by young men — average age 26 — led by flight director Gene Kranz (36). In all, 400,000 people worked on the Apollo project.

UP AND AWAY

From the Cape Kennedy launch on July 16, to splashdown in the Pacific on July 24, the world was captivated by what President Nixon would describe as “the greatest week since creation”.

The excitement reached fever pitch late on the evening of July 20 as the lunar module, Eagle, undocked from the command module Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin began a nerve-wracking descent.

With the fuel tank almost empty, Armstrong took manual control to avoid a crater before resting the craft with seconds to spare on the designated landing site, the Sea of Tranquillity.

When Armstrong announced “the Eagle has landed”, a relieved CapCom informed him the men in Houston had been “turning blue” with anxiety. Armstrong and Aldrin donned their spacesuits to prepare for their historic moonwalk. It was prime time in the US on July 20 and in the early hours of July 21 UK time when the commander made his famous “one small step for man — one giant leap for mankind” speech.

The two men took photos, rock samples and planted an American flag. Aldrin described a “magnificent desolation”, while Armstrong spoke of a “stark beauty”, as they tried to convey their first impressions of their new surroundings.

All too soon they had to begin their return journey and Apollo 11 fell to earth, splashing down in the Pacific to be met by Nixon on board the recovery vessel, the USS Hornet. .

WHAT WAS ACHIEVED?

Public interest eventually dwindled and all three men had left Nasa by the time the agency made its last manned visit to the Moon with Apollo 17 in 1972.

But of the estimated 500-600 million glued to their screens one man would never forget.

Twenty-six-year-old Colin Pillinger, from Bristol, who 40 years later is helping Nasa plan future manned lunar missions, had a personal interest in the mission's success. Pillinger knew a parcel from Nasa would soon be in his post with the lunar rock samples he had been hired to analyse.

“It was one of those moments you never forget,” says Pillinger, who had recently finished postgraduate studies at Swansea University. “It was like the Kennedy assassination. You will always remember where you were.”

Best known for his Beagle 2 Mars Lander project, Pillinger remains enthusiastic about the original moon mission.

“The samples are the greatest legacy,” he said. “They have already taught us so much.

Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, believes that humankind must continue to cross new frontiers and that Apollo marked the start and not the end of a new chapter in humanity's story.

Sir Bernard (95) says: “The Apollo missions were a tremendous demonstration of human courage... an extraordinary story.”



Buzz Aldrin punches conspiracy theorist

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