Saturday, 17 December 2011

In the beginning there was...

I can date when I first became interested in science.  In fact, I can do better than that.  I can put a time on it.  It was somewhere about 1.51pm, Saturday 21 December 1968. 

That was when I sat bewitched by live television coverage of the launch of Apollo 8.  As a five year old I didn't understand much, but I had a toy rocket launcher which resembled the Saturn V closely enough to my eyes to make a direct connection between me and the Kennedy Space Center.  As I watched the countdown and launch, a lifelong passion was born. 

I became a spaceflight nerd.  I had to know everything and luckily I was also an avid reader, even at that young age.  I stayed up late on the Sunday night that Apollo 11's lunar module touched down in the Sea of Tranquiliy, was picked out of my bed in the small hours to watch the moonwalk (although I was too sleepy to do more than raise the odd eyelid) and an agitator to have the school TV show it in class the following morning.  We were a BBC family, so Apollo to me is indelibly associated with James Burke, Patrick Moore and Also Sprach Zarathustra.

One of the biggest disappointments of my young life was the failure of the camera on the surface during Apollo 12.  I forgive Alan Bean - he's too nice a man to bear a grudge against - but it was my first chance properly to watch live pictures from the surface of the Moon and I was home too late from school to see what there was.  And Apollo 13 didn't even reach the Moon.  But Apollo 14 did and better still, Apollo 15 went to the Moon during the school holidays so there was no excuse for watching as much of it as I could.  Fantastic.

The end of Apollo, then Skylab, coincided with a tailing off of my passion.  I went on to secondary school, studied science seriously and found that biology was my best subject.  So I pushed myself deeper and deeper into that.  But I kept an eye on space, on Viking, on the development of the Shuttle, on what the Russians were up to.  It still mattered a great deal to me, just it wasn't on the TV.

I suppose for someone who is old enough to have seen Apollo as it happened, the Shuttle wasn't such an exciting prospect.  But I watched what I could on television, sat in Greenwich Park one Sunday afternoon to watch orbiter Enterprise fly past on the back of a 747, and dreamed one day of seeing a rocket launch.  I had entered a competition in Look In magazine to go to the launch of Apollo 16 (I didn't win but then again I don't think I could have gone anyway since an adult would have had to accompany me and I don't think mum or dad were that keen).  Well, I never did get to see a Shuttle launch though I was at KSC for a landing (all I heard were the sonic booms, I never saw the lander) and in 2009 I did see a Delta II rocket launch a satellite one twilight August morning.  I filmed the launch.  As the rocket lit up the dawn sky, you can clearly hear me go "Wow".

Well, here we are at a pause in spaceflight.  NASA has plans, Congress has the pursestrings and the money is scarce.  When you think of the generation of scientists and engineers made by watching Apollo, another voyage of discovery like that can only be good for the American and therefore the world economy.  Apollo might have cost a vast amount of money, but none of it was spent anywhere other than on Earth.  My granddaughter has just passed her second birthday.  I'd dearly love her to be watching a launch to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid before she is too old to be anything but cynical about it.  Fingers out, America.  Make it happen.

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