Jake O'Kane: Moon landing astronauts launched 'on the shoulders of scientists'

On May 25 1961, President John F Kennedy announced to Congress his intention to "send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth in this decade". I suspect a lot of aspiring astronauts were relieved by the second part of that statement...

Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Neil Armstrong is visible reflected in his helmet visor
Jake O'Kane

SADLY, President Kennedy did not live to see his dream realised. I, however, remember sitting as an eight-year-old boy in front of a small black-and-white television late on a July night in 1969, desperately trying to make out the grainy images flickering on the screen. I knew something momentous was afoot as I'd been allowed to stay up so late.

As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he uttered probably the most famous quote in history, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'. For millennia, humanity had stared at the moon. Now, for the first time, we viewed Earth from the moon, a tiny blue jewel floating in a sea of darkness.

If the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, isn't as well-remembered as Armstrong, then the third astronaut, Michael Collins, is almost forgotten. Collins' role was to remain in the orbiting control module while the other two descended to the surface. I once joked that the 'Paddy' always got the worst job.

As Collins sat alone, he passed behind the dark side of the moon; never before had a human-being been so alone and far from home.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the Apollo 11 mission would succeed, yet this couldn't be further from the truth: only two years earlier, three astronauts died when a fire broke out during their training.

And, as the Apollo lander began its descent, a small navigational error threw it off-course, resulting in Armstrong struggling to find a safe landing space while flying over a boulder field.

A verbal countdown marked his quickly-diminishing fuel reserve, with anything below 60 seconds deemed extremely dangerous. The final fuel call from Mission Control was "30 seconds", followed almost immediately by the brusque announcement from Armstrong, "Houston, Tranquillity Base here … the Eagle has landed".

The real impetus for the moon landing wasn't scientific inquiry but rather the humiliation of the US by the USSR's success in space. First, in launching the 'Sputnik' probe, their achievements culminated with the launch of the first man into orbit, Uri Gregarin. While the initial motivation was dented national pride, the success of Apollo 11 united the world like no event before or after. An estimated 600 million people watched Armstrong step onto the moon; never had so many viewed the same event at exactly the same time.

On this 50th anniversary of that crowning achievement, we should also remember that the three astronauts sitting atop the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket were also sitting on the shoulders of thousands of scientists, who over centuries had worked to improve humanities knowledge and understanding.

When Galileo viewed the heavens through the newly-invented telescope in 1610, he discovered the accepted theory of the earth being at the centre of the universe was wrong. He published his findings in 'Sidereus Nuncius' (Starry Messenger), announcing it was Earth which orbited the sun, not the reverse.

This publication brought him into direct conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the attention of the Inquisition, which forced him, on the threat of torture, to recant his findings. The Church finally admitted in 1991, 359 years after the event, that it had been wrong.

The announcement this week that British Scientist Alan Turing is to be the face on the new £50 note is hardly a coincidence. Turing is acknowledged as the father of modern computing and one of history's most brilliant scientists. A mathematician, logician, philosopher, computer scientist and theoretical biologist, he is best known for his work as a cryptanalyst.

During World War II, his work at Bletchley Park broke Germany's 'Enigma' military code, not only shortening the war but also saving the lives of thousands of allied troops.

However, this service to his nation didn't save him from arrest and conviction for gross indecency when his homosexuality became known to authorities in 1952. Forced to choose between prison or chemical castration, he settled for the latter.

Alan Turing died by suicide in 1954 at the age of 41 by taking cyanide. It took the UK government 59 years to grant Turing a posthumous pardon. While his time on earth was short, his genius undoubtedly contributed to humanity reaching the moon.

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