Fascinating Op-Ed in today’s Australian, centred on the event of the day, the week in fact. The 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing and the first footprint on the lunar surface.
It’s a good read, and invokes memories of the time. Memories like those you hear from people just a little older than me. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” kind of memories. I’m not old enough to actually remember Jack Kennedy’s demise, although I was born in 1957, Jack Kennedy didn’t mean anything to me until at least 1970. Sure, the name registers, but not the idea of who he was. Where was I when Kennedy was shot? 22 November 1963. I was six years old, probably at school, second grade. My memories of that stage of my life are many and varied, jumbled and random, but Jack Kennedy’s demise doesn’t figure at all.
Come forward six years and the US Apollo Space Program. My memories are again, many, varied, jumbled and random, but one mission stands apart. That has to be Apollo 11. My interest in the Apollo program began with Apollo 7, the first manned spaceflight of the program which tested the ability of the Saturn V launch vehicle to actually lift three men and a lift support capsule into Earth orbit. The mighty Saturn V, a three stage launch vehicle 110 metres high, generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust at launch, the most powerful launch vehicle to the time and more powerful than the mechanisms which heft today’s Space Shuttle into low Earth orbit. We’ve all seen the videos of a Saturn launch. The massive flames at the base, holding clamps snapping back, the oh-so slow lift of the vehicle rapidly increasing as the almost unbelievable thrust overcomes gravity. Condensed ice from the liquid oxygen storage in the first & second stages falling away in sheets as vibration shakes the vehicle as she climbs away. It’s an awesome sight which even today sends shives through my body, as does every Shuttle launch I get to see.
Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 tested many, many aspects of the technology, human activities and durability in space, the ability of what today amounts to less computing power than what occupies upmarket refrigerators. Cartage of freight, in the form of the Lunar Excursion Module, inside the upper portion of the Saturn V third stage, docking between two vehicles, orbiting the moon, undocking and re-docking of a LEM and a brief flirt with the lunar surface during Apollo 10. All of those flights enduring at the end, the fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere of a plummeting command capsule in a barely controlled descent ending in a splashdown in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Each and every re-entry, as is still the case today, with the lurking potential to result in the swift and devastating end to the lives aboard the re-entry vehicle.
Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 all took place with the short space of 8 months. A radical timeframe in today’s terms when NASA has difficulties getting two Shuttle flights away within three months, but in fairness, ignorance of fatal reality, lack of any genuine set-backs and political imperatives of the Cold War drove optimism during Apollo. As Jack Kennedy stated,
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win.”
The emphasis, of course, being on the ‘win’ aspect.
But as a youth of less than 12 years of age, my one startlingly clear and cogent memory of the Apollo program was Apollo 11. In the late sixties, spaceflight held great promise for news services. Who knew when everything might go arse-up and people die as a result of pushing human endeavour? The Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it then was, broadcast the radio transmissions from Florida and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Houston, Texas. For a young lad slowly becoming aware of the importance of the age listening into the wee hours was like being there, and I listened a lot. I heard every launch, listened to the astronauts and the ground controllers. It was like a drug for me, I just had to do it, regardless of the hour. When it came to Apollo 11, I was there July 16 1969 from lift off at 23:32 Australian Eastern Standard Time. Listened to launch, the climb to orbit and the next two hours forty minutes while the astronauts settled into their planned orbit, and prepared for Trans Lunar Injection, or TLI as the jargon decreed.
Apollo 11 orbited at the very shallow altitude of 180 kilometres in preparation for TLI. Calculations on the orbit revealed that TLI would occur over Townsville, Australia. The ABC broadcast, to which I’d been riveted all this time, told we in Brisbane that if we were to look low on the northern horizon, about 11 or 12 degrees above the horizon, we might catch the flare of the third stage SIVB booster as it fired, giving Apollo 11 escape velocity. Forward momentum sufficient to escape the pull of Earth gravity, and head out toward the Moon. I saw that burn, in fact, I can still see it today. Low on the northern horizon, in fact from my bedroom window, it was barely above the tree line at the top of the hill. A brilliant red-orange cone-shaped flare around the size of a five cent piece held at arm’s length which moved from left to right across the northern horizon. Thankfully the night sky was crystal clear as winter usually is in Brisbane. It’s a sight I will remember until I can’t remember anymore.
The next three days were filled with news of the spacecraft’s journey between Earth and Moon, the discarding of the SIVB after the LEM was plucked from within its upper end by the Command Module. Then Lunar Orbit. I was at school July 21, 1969. Seventh grade, Coorparoo State School, and I wasn’t about to miss the landing & first steps simply so I could maintain a perfect attendance record. I couldn’t find out whether the school had television, or even if there was any interest among the teachers, so I absconded sometime around 10:30am, called Mum from the telephone box across from the school and told her I was coming home to watch on TV. She made no attempt to talk me out of jumping on a council bus and coming home. Remarkable really, even in 1969.
The Lunar Module, ‘Eagle’ touched down on the Moon’s surface at 20:17:40, Greenwich Mean Time. That translates to 08:17 Australian Eastern Standard Time. I made it home from school barely in time to watch Armstrong and then Aldrin step onto the Moon. I can still remember vividly the surroundings. A big old Westinghouse black & white television set in the corner of the lounge room, the teak veneer coffee table in the middle of the room, the threadbare carpet square, the big, uncomfortable modular lounge chairs with the tooth marks on the varnish from both myself and my younger brother. The best teething ring money could buy, apparently. The transmission was terrible but I don’t recall noticing. The sound was scratchy, but I didn’t care. I remember being fascinated by the American flag standing straight out from its pole, until Mum said it was hanging from a rod at right angles to the pole like a curtain. I remember Richard Nixon’s voice, mentions of God which seemed strangely anachronistic, and two men in mirror-faced, cumbersome suits with large suitcase sized backpacks standing stock still before the flag as their President spoke.
Where was I when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon? The lounge, 85 Greenmount Avenue, Brisbane.