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Saturday, 15 May 2010

Up, Up and Away

This week saw the shuttle "Atlantis" lift off on its final planned flight. It is the first of the final three shuttle missions which began over a quarter of century ago. The remaining two, "Discovery" and "Endeavour" will make their final trips in September and November respectively.

Even the end of an era hasn't stirred the imagination. Despite the huge roar of the rocket engines, the shuttle has crept almost silently into orbit - getting on with what has become the  routine business of servicing the space station, the Hubble telescope or launching a new satellite into space.

And soon it'll end. Lack of money, lack of energy and, more importantly,  lack of relevance has seen to that.

I think back to the early 60's and the beginnings of the "Space Race". If it was a race, we were really only aware of one competitor - the Americans. First there was the Mercury Mission - single astronauts (including John Glenn)  spinning round the globe. Gemini, with two astronauts sitting side by side in a space little bigger than a tea- chest. Space walks with Michelin men dangling in space as a huge blue and white planet slowly drifted beneath them. Apollo - the grand daddy - leading to that moon landing more than 40 years ago.

In those long lost days, it was all so exciting. Grainy, crackling feeds from space filled our black and white TV screens. It was Apollo 8 that caught my imagination, and I suspect that of millions of others. For the first time man would be breaking free of the earth's grip - falling in to the tender grip of the moon's gravitational field. I remember the huge diagrams showing the earth and moon with a giant figure 8 looping behind them. We were told that once the spaceship passed a certain point there was no turning back; the only way back to planet Earth and beach parties was around the moon. What a frightening thought! And that was compounded when we learnt that once the space vehicle was behind the moon, completely isolated with no contact with Earth, they had to fire their rockets to slow the craft down so that it would orbit our sister planet. Later on, they would fire up the rockets again so they could escape the moon grip and begin the journey home.

So many firsts on Apollo 8 including the first bible reading from the Moon! In many ways it was  the most inspiring of the Moon missions. Apollo 11 saw man on the moon and Apollo 13 (with Tom Hanks at the controls) enacted first space soap opera which kept many of us on tender-hooks for days and nights. But for me it was Apollo 8 and the attendant excitement, anticipation and expectation that made it the greatest.

And now Obama  has said no to man's return to the Moon; and a human visit to Mars is a distant dream. but as one or two doors close many more open. Advances in optics means that we don't have to launch telescopes into space but can build new earth bound ones, which thanks to new software can deliver a picture clarity and definition that we thought impossible 10 years ago. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn,offer intriguing possibilities of some form of life. Mars may not be as dead as we thought and even Venus with its searing heat and crushing pressure will yield up fascinating detail in the near future as new probes head its way.

It's humbling to think that Apollo 11 landed on the moon helped by a computer with less computing power than that of  a modern mobile phone. It's sobering that the last of the shuttles are built around technology and design that gave us the Ford Mustang of the mid 60's and the juke box.


The Sagittarian said...

I was too young to recall all that, sometimes it seems like maybe it wasn't real. I guess you can find any number of people who will tell you that! However, I doubt that many could keep a secret...

Barry Coidan said...

Ah! I finally understand. I've been puzzling all day about your comments. It's the old conspiracy theory - The Americans never went to the Moon - it was all shot on a back lot in Hollywood.