Friday, 15 April 2016


"We choose to go to the moon. 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"

On September 12 1962, during a speech at Rice University, Houston, Texas, the President of the time, John F Kennedy, delivered a speech that set a challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon before the end of the 60s.

The Cold War was in full swing, and the main enemy of America at the time was Russia. On the 12 April the year before this speech (today almost exactly 55 years ago), Russia had just struck fear in the American hearts and put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin.

In all the time man has been around, it is only 55 years ago that we first left the planet's surface and looked down upon the earth.

So NASA, a fledgling space agency, having been founded in 1958, took up the challenge. America had to be first to the moon.

Many obstacles had to be jumped over and solved, and the only way to do this was to get up there and out into space, which meant sending people out into orbit atop volatile rockets.

The mission program that would go to the moon was to be called Apollo, but the preceding program was called Gemini. It was aboard these early research flights of Gemini 9, the 7th such launch in June 1966, that a 32 year old young man called Gene Cernan had his first opportunity. He would perform a spacewalk (again Russia had beaten the Americans to this a year earlier) and later be selected to be part of the Apollo missions.

And so the perilous journey to land on the moon began in earnest.

It was fraught with difficulties, and astronauts died in the process in horrific accidents, but finally a date had been set: July 20 1969. That crew, aboard Apollo 11, would consist of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins.

But before they could do that NASA had to have a fly by, to check for possible surface problems for landing. We didn't have powerful HD cameras in those days to look at the moon, and certainly no satellites, so we had to go there, and Apollo 10 made the journey, over  a week in May of 1969, doing everything but actually land on the surface. Gene Cernan commanded that flight. It must have been so frustrating being that close and not actually landing.

But, at age 38, he would finally get his chance in December 1972, aboard Apollo 17, and was home in time for Christmas.

Here's a startling fact; that smart phone in your pocket? The processor for the clock alone is 32,000 times faster than the computer that was aboard the spacecraft that went to the moon, and can perform calculations 120 million times faster!

To put it in simpler terms, your kitchen toaster is more clever!

But go, land, walk about and come back they did.

And that was that. As it turned out, after Apollo 17 the budget was cancelled. We have never been back since.

I am hugely excited and interested about the Apollo missions. I can still recall as a 6 year old boy, Armstrong stepping onto the surface. It was such a milestone in mans evolution. Yes, things at home in Scotland, the mountains and bike routes I so regularly visit, are certainly my first love, but there is no ignoring this incredible feat.

So you can imagine how very excited I was last Tuesday at my local cinema, to go and see a screening of a new film, The Last Man On The Moon. Just to make it more exciting, there was a live Q&A at the end with Gene Cernan himself, by satellite, which seemed appropriate. He seemed very emotional, as were a lot of people in the audience. He told us he had been offered the Space Shuttle program after the Apollo missions, but had turned it down.

He now lives out his days on his ranch.

He was the very last person to have his feet on the lunar surface, but there was one final story that he told us that I didn't know. Just before he stepped off onto the LEM ladder to come home, he wrote his daughters initials, TDC, in the surface. They will be there for millions of years to come.

Maybe one day we'll go back and find those initials. I hope so, for despite all the amazing advancements in technology and space capability, only 12 humans have ever stepped on the surface of the moon.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Nice essay. Cernan seems like a great guy. Netflix has "The Right Stuff" which is about the early days of NASA available for streaming!