Monday, 27 August 2012

A relucant American genius

Just occasionally there are times in the rich tapestry of life when events come together in a way we had perhaps wished for but never anticipated would actually ever become reality.

Such was the case for the Lighthouse Keeper back in March 2010 when a very unexpected invite popped into my email inbox from a Dr Dougal Goodman, chief executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology, someone I was not previously acquainted with.

‘I write on behalf of the Earl of Selborne KBE FRS to invite you to meet with Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the Moon, and Captain Jim Lovell, Commander of Apollo 13, who are visiting London on 12 March.

‘They have agreed to present a short film of the history of the space programme and to participate in a question and answer session. Sixth Form pupils and undergraduates have also been invited to participate.

‘The meeting will be at The Royal Society, 7-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, and there will be an opportunity to meet with Neil and his colleagues after the formal session.’

It seemed like all my Christmas’s had come at once! For the Lighthouse Keeper - Editor of Spaceflight magazine and a journalist writing regularly for ESA on Europe’s human spaceflight programme for a decade - it was certainly one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.

Of course, in my work with ESA and Spaceflight magazine, I had already met and interviewed many of the modern-day spacemen and women who had undertaken or were in training for missions on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, as well as some of the pioneering astronauts and cosmonauts from the American and the Russian space programmes.

But here was an opportunity to connect with a trio of astronauts from each of the most dramatic of America’s Apollo Moon missions. Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon; Captain Jim Lovell, Commander of Apollo 8 on the first circumnavigation of the Moon and then of the of the ill-fated Apollo 13; and Gene Cernan, the last man (to date) to walk on the Moon.

It was all the more special because, in the 40 years since Armstrong’s historic first footprints on another world, his public speaking engagements had been relatively few and far between, particularly outside of America. He was a very private hero.

Here was the chance to meet one of the men who, when the Lighthouse Keeper was just 10 years old, had inspired a lifelong passion in all things space. Back in the late 1960s the inspirational missions of Apollo 8 and 11 had captured my fertile imagination and spawned a lifelong passion for all things space.

Armstrong was softly spoken and at times difficult to hear as he recounted in his own words the Apollo 11 mission.

And we heard two of the most famous phrases in the world spoken by the man in person. "Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed!" and "That's one small step for a man but one giant leap for Mankind."

Spoken with dignity, an actor's poise and, even after all these years, a touch of heartfelt emotion. And, of course, they got a standing ovation.

It is the hazy black and white TV images of Armstrong setting foot on the lunar surface that we remember so vividly. But ironically for such a fastidiously detailed and meticulously planned NASA programme there was one incredible omission - during the three hour excursion on the lunar surface no official colour photo was taken of Neil Armstrong.

The frame reproduced below is from Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site and is the only Hasselblad-quality picture of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface.

It was uncovered by my friend the late Douglas ‘HJP’ Arnold, of Havant, Hampshire, and we published it exclusively in Spaceflight magazine for the first time in July 1988 along with a detailed article about how this remarkable situation had come about.

Back at the post-talk malay at the Royal Society in London it was not easy to catch a moment to photograph Armstrong but I was pleased to grab this shot of him holding a copy of Spaceflight magazine, presented to him by my British Interplanetary Society colleague Suszann Parry.

As we had watched the three Apollo guys recounting their adventures with undiminished excitement and enthusiasm it was easy to think that given their combined age such occasions would become increasingly rare.

And so it proved with the sad announcement on 25 August that Neil Armstrong had passed away after complications following heart surgery.

Armstrong’s life marked an age of progress - his crackling words and ghostly images are both the soundtrack and some of the age’s defining images.

The choice of Armstrong to be the first man to walk on the Moon was a stroke of genius in itself. He needed no PR spin to embellish his achievement and there is no autobiography or celebrity status.

He was, as described by his family, ‘a very reluctant hero’, chosen because he was perfect for the job. And in that his remarkable story will remain the inspiration for generations to come.