Sunday, 26 August 2012

One Small Step...

"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges, it's in the nature of his deep inner soul. We're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream." 

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

I wrote this blog over a year ago trying to explain why I'm convinced landing on the moon was our greatest achievement as a species. Although it does not reference Apollo 11 directly  I still feel it sums up why Armstrong's "small step" the culmination of the work of 100,000+ men and women, marked a time when mankind was truly audacious in its outlook, and dared to dream the impossible.


It’s 1967 and three men sit reclined on their backs squeezed in to a tiny cabin; a cone three meters high by four meters wide crammed with dials and switches. They are perched on top of the most complex and powerful machine mankind has ever created, the Saturn V Moon rocket. Below them are thousands of tonnes of kerosene, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen. Their nearest fellow humans are 1.5 miles away inside concrete blockhouses and behind steel blast walls,  the men's destination is a little further away however, 250,000 miles further; the crew of Apollo 8 are about to hitch a ride to the moon.

Apollo 8 is rolled out of the vehicle assembly building

The Saturn V is an amazing machine, a true wonder of the world, a demonstration of both high technology and pure brute power. It’s very easy to play the numbers game with this monster but I can’t resist; 110m tall and weighing over 3000 tonnes, at launch the five F1 engines burned 15 tonnes or 12,700 litres of fuel a second delivering 7,600,000 pounds of thrust. The turbopumps which delivered the fuel to the combustion chamber had the same horsepower as six diesel train engines (55,000 horsepower).

The F1 engines of the first stage

The Saturn V is the icon but it is is the Apollo programme itself that I find particularly inspiring. I know it was a deeply political programme driven by the need to beat the USSR at the height of the Cold War. I know the cost of $170 billion dollars in today's money was questionable with many arguing the money could have been better spent. In my opinion it was worth it, as a species we have an insatiable desire to push our limits right across the field of human creativity from maths to music, to explore and expand every corner of what we are. With the Apollo program we stopped walking as a species and began to run.

I find the energy and speed of the programme fascinating, the Saturn V had flown unmanned twice before the Apollo 8 mission but on the second flight (Apollo 6) serious problems had arisen with the rocket. Yet on the very next flight they made the decision to launch the rocket with a crew; but not only that, to launch the rocket manned and send it to orbit round the Moon. 

Jettisoning a stage separator high above the Earth

Some may see the audacity of this decision as arrogant but I disagree, the arrogance had been taken out of the program forever following the death of three crew in the Apollo 1 fire. I  see in this decision the confidence that comes from the total commitment of the tens of thousands involved, the care to get everything right every time. The kind of commitment that comes when the task is truly inspirational.

For me the crux of the program was not even the moon landing itself but a few minutes when Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon. To orbit the moon the spacecraft would have to traverse it's dark side. The Earth disappeared below the lunar horizon, and the radio went dead, the men of Apollo 8 became more isolated than anyone else in history completely cut off from home, the first humans to see with there own eyes the dark site of the moon.

One of the Earthrise photos taken by the crew of Apolo 8. The photo should actually be rotated anticlockwise by 90 degrees as that was the orientation seen from the spacecraft.

Nobody had really realized the significance of what would happen next, the event overlooked by the technical minutia of the mission. Slowly a small disk of blue and white began to rise over the barren dull grey surface of the moon shining brilliantly with reflected sunlight amid the absolute blackness of space. The crew of Apollo 8 saw the Earth rise over the horizon of another world.

The Earth was small, tiny, you could cover it with your thumb. The mission plan sort of went out the window, with the crew glued to the small windows of the capsule. This image, small and grainy is my favourite photograph it effects me like nothing else I have ever seen. It’s primeval, I well up with emotion every time I see it (I can feel a tear in my eye just thinking about it now). It is quite simply the most beautiful thing I will ever see; it sums up everything we have achieved since our ancestors dragged themselves onto dry land from the seas. It also highlights all we have, our planet beautiful, fragile, and delicate. It's no wonder the image is often credited with kick starting environmental awareness.

This is newsreel footage of the launch of Apollo 4 the first use of the Saturn V. The TV booth 3.5 miles from the launch site partly collapsed such was the power of the rocket.

In my opinion the Apollo programme is our greatest achievement as a species. It’s about more than the three men who made each flight, it’s about the hundreds of support staff on Earth, the tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, and designers who believed a dream. Most of all it’s about us as a species reaching for the very edge of the envelope.

There are many things I would love to have see have seen, times and events in history that I would love to have experienced. To see Earthrise, to have stood in awe as a Saturn V roared into the sky would have been life changing experiences. Feeling the energy, the excitement, the power and the beauty, but most of all to see us as a species reaching for the impossible. Be inspired by what we can do if we set our minds to it.

The whole Earth photograph taken by the crew of Apollo 17

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