Sunday, 21 June 2009

Space, The Moon, And Memories

I have an admission to make. I am fascinated by space. Not room-type space, but that area above our atmosphere. I suppose it comes from being a child of the 50s who vividly remembers such things as the impact that Sputnik had on the world. I remember listening to my transistor radio when Apollo 8 went behind the Moon and we waited to hear from the astronauts again. The choice of the passage from Genesis about the creation of Earth was inspired.

Apollo 11 held me spellbound and seeing Neil Armstrong step out on to the Moon with the words 'That's one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind' will remain with me forever. Then there was the worry of the problems that befell Apollo 13 and the hopes of the world that the astronauts could be brought back safely.

Later Apollo missions gave us the Moon buggy which bounced across the Moon's surface in what appeared a most dangerous manner. And because the buggy remained on the Moon it was possible for the camera onboard to be pointed towards the lunar lander and we were able to witness it taking off for a rendezvous with the command capsule. The multicoloured sparks are something that I can clearly see in my mind even now.

Only six missions with lunar landings took place. That meant that only 12 men walked on the Moon, and only 9 of them are still alive. One of the things that the astronauts who walked on the Moon did while they was there was to collect rocks for examination back here on Earth. There is a piece of Moon rock mounted in perspex in the Natural History Museum. But far more exciting is the piece of Moon rock that you can touch in the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. This is my favourite museum in all the countries that I have been fortunate enough to visit and something that I always did when I visited was to touch that piece of Moon rock and think about the journey that had to be made to collect it.

Tonight I have been watching the programmes on BBC2 and BBC4 that James May made about going to the Moon and his flight to the edge of space in a U2 aircraft. Seeing him getting into his space suit in preparation for the flight brought back memories of my time in the RAF. I was fortunate enough on a couple of occasions to be able to visit USAF bases in the UK and see aircrew preparing for flights in U2 and SR-71 aircraft.

It is amazing to see the U2 travel along the runway and on reaching take-off speed lift into the sky and the pogo undercarriage drop from the wings. Watching the aircraft land again hours later, one couldn't help but be impressed by the skill of the pilot in keeping the aircraft's wings level until it had slowed enough for it to safely slew over onto one of its wingtips as it came to a halt.

But for sheer exhilaration there is no aircraft that can beat the experience of standing on the edge of a runway when an SR-71 takes off. Because an aircraft that flies at the height and speed of the SR-71 expands when it reaches altitude and full speed, it is made so that its panels are not fixed but allow for that expansion to take place. This means that it leaks fuel while it is on the ground. It would taxi to the end of the runway and then start to move. As it gathered speed and approached the area where we were standing the sound of its engines would become louder. Our hosts would always try to ensure that we were standing near the spot on the runway that the aircraft would start to lift from the runway and by this time the sound was deafening (we were given ear defenders) and it would actually start to be possible to feel the effect of this sound in our bodies. The effect would slowly dissipate as the aircraft moved off into the distance and climbed into the sky. Watching an SR-71 come in from a mission at night was also something that I was fortunate enough to witness on a couple of occasions. Night-time landings were the best because it was possible to see the aircraft glowing red as a result of the airframe heating up as it travelled at more than twice the speed of sound. Although the aircraft had slowed to more normal speeds for its landing it was still very hot and with the right conditions the red glow was visible from some considerable distance and I often wonder if it was sometimes responsible for sightings of UFOs.

All this is now long ago and yet these are memories that can clearly come back to me when something such as tonight's television programmes are shown.

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