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Moon landings: How trip united a divided world

The whole planet was gripped by Apollomania in July 1969 as men landed on the Moon for the very first time. Streets were named after the famous astronauts and, for a time at least, anything seemed possible, remembers Kim Bielenberg

Big gamble: how the Belfast Telegraph reported the first
Moon landing in July 1969
Big gamble: how the Belfast Telegraph reported the first Moon landing in July 1969

By Kim Bielenberg

It was a moment in history that seemed for a short time to bring the entire world together. Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who later said he was descended from cattle rustlers from Co Fermanagh, cautiously pressed his boot onto the Moon just before 4am British Summer Time on July 21, 1969.

He was careful as he felt around on the lunar surface. When he stepped out he could not be certain that the terrain was firm. Nobody could be sure that he would not sink.

And then, as he stepped away from the ladder, he uttered the line that echoes across the decades: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

He meant to say 'one small step for a man', but who could complain when he had just travelled a distance of 239,000 miles from Earth?

At that moment, thousands of children across the country were bleary-eyed and bewildered, having been woken by parents who wanted to give them an opportunity to witness a moment in history on television - the time when humankind finally landed on the Moon.

We could just about make out the grainy human figure of Armstrong stepping lightly through the shadows on the small black-and-white TV. My first thought at that moment as a seven-year-old was: "Man on the Moon - hasn't there always been a man in the Moon?"

At the time of the mission, America was mired in the Vietnam War, where it was to lose nearly 60,000 men.

The Moon landing was as much a spectacular political stunt as a scientific expedition.

America wanted to show the world that it was more advanced technologically than the Soviet Union. The lunar surface was the finishing line of a Cold War space race.

Northern Ireland was being engulfed by its first flare-ups of the Troubles, with nationalist protesters clashing with the RUC.

But at that moment - with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin treading lightly on the Moon - there was a feeling that anything could be achieved.

Back then, nobody would have thought that this phase of space travel would prove to be so short-lived.

Steeped in futuristic picture books and sci-fi stories, we expected families to be living on other planets in homes connected by transparent tubes - and by 2019 we would have expected humans to be living on Mars.

Wernher von Braun, who designed the Apollo 11 rocket, having developed deadly weapons for the Nazis, believed humans would reach Mars by the 1980s.

Fifty years on from the Moon landing, we can still look back in awe at how scientists and astronauts brought a spaceship to the Moon using a computer with less power than a present-day smartphone.

One can still marvel at how the vast space rocket, Saturn V, lifted itself to the heavens with a volcanic eruption of noise before the astronauts eventually transferred into a tiny lunar landing craft through elaborate docking manoeuvres.

It was not only regarded as a miracle to put a man on the Moon; it was also miraculous to see live pictures of the event from 239,000 miles away.

Up to 600 million people around the world may have been watching as the lunar module landed.

But none of this would have been possible if a Dubliner, William Rowan Hamilton, had not gone for a stroll along the Royal Canal in the capital one October morning in 1843.

The scientist was just ambling along the canal banks when he had a eureka moment.

He dreamt up a new system of four-dimensional numbers called 'quaternions'. This was the formula that helped to put men on the Moon.

When one of the astronauts was later shown a bust of Hamilton on a tour of Trinity College, he was suddenly impressed and remarked how he had used Hamilton's quaternions to land the lunar module.

Whatever pressure Armstrong felt during the Moon landings, he hardly showed it as he brought the lunar module down, even though it was a hugely risky mission.

As the newspapers explained the following day, it was a landing that came perilously close to disaster.

"As the module neared the Moon's surface, Armstrong saw that the computerised auto-pilot was sending the fragile ship towards a field scattered with rocks and boulders in the projected landing site," reported one.

Between July 1969 and December 1972, 12 men walked on the Moon, but nobody followed.

The last words from the surface of the Moon from astronaut Eugene Cernan on the final mission were more prosaic than the first: "Okay. Now, let's get off. Forget the camera."

There is renewed interest in travelling to the Moon from billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and the Chinese government also wants to send up astronauts.

But whatever their achievements in the coming years, it will be hard to recreate the excitement generated by the men who landed there half a century ago.

Belfast Telegraph


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