Sunday, 19 July 2009


Just back from a terrific day at Jodrell Bank (above) attending the ‘moonbounce’ event to commemorate Apollo 11. There were talks from a number of luminaries that kept us entertained all day .
Speakers included Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of the telescope here at Jodrell, Andrew Smith, the writer of ‘Moondust’ (a must-read book for all Apollo buffs everywhere) and Colin Pillinger, the scientist who shot to prominence as lead scientist on the Beagle II project.
I especially enjoyed Andrew Smith’s reading – an extract from ‘Moondust’ that was set against archive film of Eagle descending to the sea of Tranquillity, and a haunting sound track by Brian Eno. The timing of the reading was perfect and it captured the atmosphere of the moment in a way that words alone could not have done. Everyone in the audience was visibly moved by what they saw and heard.
Then in the afternoon Colin Pillinger spoke, in a way that offered hope, about NASA’s plans to revisit the moon via the Ares project. There have been plans before and as I said yesterday there’s no money and these things come and go, and yes, I’m still a bit sceptical. But Professor Pillinger was so positive and optimistic and... well, wouldn’t it be fabulous if this really did come to pass.

Here's me, (in blue) standing in front of the 250ft telescope at Jodrell Bank. Yes, it really is that big!

And then it was time for the ‘moonbounce’ itself. Competition winners were invited to speak into a microphone and have their words relayed to the telescope in Cambridge, transmitted out to the moon where they bounced back to be received by the 250ft telescope at Jodrell Bank. We all heard the words as a ghostly echo 2.5 seconds later.
It sounds trivial. It wasn’t.
It was done in a way that thrilled us all.
In the end we were all invited to shout out “Hello moon,” and 2.5 seconds later the ghostly echo of our voices came back.
Wow! My voice has been to the moon and back.
I’m still smiling.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Forty Years

How about the picture? Does that stir something deep inside?

It’s been quite a week for recalling the heady days of the Apollo programme. But what has surprised me is the number of people I’ve spoken to who don’t remember it – at all! This is not because they have bad memories it’s because they weren’t even born at the time. This comes as quite a shock. Some of these children are forty! What happened there? For me all the memories of Apollo are fresh, as if it only happened a few short years ago. I’ve come to realise that I share this world with quite a lot of people who regard Apollo as a dry history-book episode rather than as that wonderous, breathtaking, live event that I clambered out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to watch live on telly.

I miss it. I hate that it’s history. I want it back.

It’s frustrating each time there’s an announcement: we’ll go back to the moon, we’ll go to Mars – and then it all fizzles out. Come on Barak, I know the globe is a bit strapped for cash at the moment, but how about another Kennedy-esque announcement that we’re going to do something big and bold and mad before this decade is out (or I suppose it’ll have to be the next decade – it might be a bit too bold to expect something by Christmas). Those who worry about the money, the cost, don’t really get it. NASA didn’t send all that money into space at all. The bits that went up into space were just a minor part of it. The real money stayed on Earth, in the US, and grew. Investment encourages investment. Just like Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 30’s it does no harm to spend a bit on grand schemes when things get are getting a bit rocky in the economy.
You’ll notice, by the way, my use of the royal ‘we’. I’m a Brit. My particular ‘we’ would be hard pressed to move a man from here to the Asda car-park (and return him safely) by rocket. Men on the moon are a bit out of our league at the moment. So we’re relying on you guys in the US to pull-off another big one. China could do it sometime soon, but then it wouldn’t be on the telly, so what use would that be to any of us. The US would have HD cameras and live internet feeds, and the astronauts would be on Twitter!
Anyway, there’s another TV documentary about to start, so I’m off to get a bit more of the space-geek out of my system. Oh and tomorrow I’m off to Jodrell Bank for an Apollo anniversary special in the shadow of the big dish. Can’t wait.