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July 20, 2019


I was even younger, and can remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the quality of the pictures... clearly shallow all my life.

While it is true that for a brief time Apollo united the globe (with the possible exception of the USSR), the program’s impetus was not beauty. love or joy - though it engendered all of them - but plain politics.

As chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a White House advisory group, Johnson moved quickly to “dominate Washington space activities,” as Aviation Week approvingly put it. Kennedy, preoccupied with Cuba, Southeast Asia, and other matters, paid the issue little mind—until April 12, 1961, when a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person in space. “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up,” Kennedy beseeched his staff. That somebody was Johnson, who made the case for a manned lunar mission—America’s only chance, he believed, to leapfrog the Soviets. In late April, he sent Kennedy a memo billed as an evaluation of the space program, but it was not that; it was a piece of advocacy, a one-sided case for “aggressive” action. “This country should be realistic,” Johnson warned J.F.K.; other nations “will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader—the winner in the long run.” And like it or not, Johnson added, “dramatic accomplishments in space” were the mark of world leadership.

So I suppose, like everything LBJ was involved in, a strange intermingling of the highest and lowest in our natures.

I wasn’t aware of just how critical NASA was to to nascent US chip industry (I presume the military bought most of the rest?) - so one might argue that LBJ was the father of Silicon Valley:

Semiconductors, now ubiquitous in modern electronics, were newly invented and largely untested during the 1960s, when the Apollo program took shape. NASA’s decision to use chips to power its Apollo Guidance Computer and other devices helped launch the semiconductor industry and give rise to Silicon Valley.

NASA, in fact, was the first and largest consumer of semiconductors in the 1960s, buying more than one million chips between 1962 and 1967, which was approximately 60 percent of all the chips produced in the U.S. during that time. The first chips tested for NASA’s use cost $1,000 each. By the time astronauts landed on the moon, the price had dropped to $15 apiece. This principle of dramatically increased functionality at lower cost, set forth by Moore’s Law in 1965, has guided semiconductor innovation ever since.

As college students, we didn't have TVs in our rooms. But everybody in my dorm, seemed like, was gathered around the TV in the common room that day. (And those of us who were engineering students were praying hard that no little glitch turn the whole thing into a tragedy.)

I was 14, and we had a large balcony overlooking a park. So we threw a party to watch it on the TV, and the man who became the great love of my life set up his (hand-tooled, hand-built) telescope on the balcony so when people got bored of the waiting they could look at the rings of Saturn. It was, after his death, to attend the ceremony to donate that telescope, and some of his other home-built scientific instruments, which are now displayed in their lobby, that I was at the Space Sciences department of the Open University soon after their Philae lander landed on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It was intensely memorable for many reasons, not least because in the seminar afterwards that they gave the six of us who went, they passed around various fragments of planetary bodies, and although the bit of moon was so small it was encased in plastic, the piece of Mars was not and I actually held it in my hand. I selfishly feel this gives me boasting rights forever, and I apologise for telling you this story again...


Yes, you have boasting rights FOR ALL ETERNITY, pardon me I have exploded in envy.

What is Mars like?

Damn, I’m jealous, too.

Which appropriately reminds me of how I felt as a seven year old, having carefully constructed my moon lander Airfix model and then been confronted with the rich kid’s Saturn V....

Like I said, shallow.

It was red! (Sort of rust-coloured).

I asked, apologising for what I thought was probably an idiotic question, how they knew it was part of Mars. They said "Its chemical composition." (And I think, from what I remember, also the fact that it was part of a meteorite - i.e. an impact on Mars had flung a piece of debris out which had reached Earth).

Did it feel like "just a rock"? Smooth, rough? Not that the surface would be the same on Earth as it was on Mars, of course, because of our watery oxygen atmosphere.

I am so sorry, I can't remember. I was in a kind of strange state, amazed and in a kind of disbelief at what I was holding and its meaning. The whole occasion had a kind of weird, almost dissociative quality, partly because of my past history with the man in question. But it also felt almost hallucinatorily appropriate, I had often been out with him in my teens and twenties on star-gazing expeditions, and the timing of occultations etc, and here I was talking to the Professor who had just been on the news jumping up and down excitedly when Philae landed. It is a very extraordinary memory, for all these reasons, but alas (which actually I now regret) I was in no state to make scientific observations!

I was in boot camp. One of the drill instructors brought in a portable, battery-powered TV with a screen smaller than a MoonPie. We could hear the audio while 40 people crowded around it trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening.

The thing I remember best about the moon landings (I was Nigel's age) was trying to work out why Mission Control for this American project would be in Euston.


Lots of things last week to the general tune of "Why can't America do things like Apollo today?" I've spent some time over the years thinking about that, and have concluded that Apollo was a once-in-a-lifetime thing where everything was just right.

It was a one-off engineering problem. There was a clear point where it would be possible to "declare victory and go home". That's the kind of thing Americans do best.

There was a straightforward (which is not the same as easy) path from where we were to the target. The F-1 engine, the key piece that made it possible to put enough mass in orbit, had already been test-fired at full throttle. It was a solution in search of a problem.

The was an available pot of money to throw at it. All of the debt added during WWII had recently been retired. There wasn't going to be any pain involved.

It had heroes.

It is not uncommon to hear candidates talk about climate change requiring an Apollo-like project. Climate change is a completely different thing. It goes on indefinitely. There's no clear end point. The path forward is less straightforward, or at least, the engineers don't agree on how to get there. There is no obvious pot of money. There will be pain for the common American. There are no heroes risking their lives. Climate change is not the kind of problem that Americans are good at.

We didn't have a TV and my family didn't watch it. I don't know why. I don't remember discussing whether we would watch it or not.

I did see the landing while at the neighbor's house. They had a black and white TV and to tell the truth I remember an image of a girl in Carnaby Street clothes dancing and do not remember the moon landing.

I think that the Carnaby dancer stuck in my mind because I had so little exposure to mass culture that the current fashions in clothes was more evocative to me than the moon landing. I just didn't have a sense of wonder and awe about it. More a sense of "Oh so now we've done that." To me landing on the moon was just another invention in a whole human history of inventing things. But that glimpse of fashion showed that there was a world of people right here on earth who were way more cool and probably having way more fun that us small town Iowans.

I do remember the 1968 Democratic convention. My parents rented a TV for that.

We had been visiting my sister in NH and were driving home to NY, listening to the progress of the mission on the radio. We really really really wanted to get home in time to watch it on TV, and we did, watching on a TV with a screen about as big as the screen of my laptop.

There was a lot of stuff just generally in the air that summer, and in the years leading up to that summer - Vietnam, riots, assassinations, the whole hippie thing - the 60's were hectic. I guess I was 12, it was hard to have enough context to make sense of it all. Chaos and conflict seemed like the normal state of the world.

But, for like a day, it was pretty magical.

GFTNC, you never cease to amaze. Just saying.

It is a very charming read. Thank you for sharing. Came to know about lunar module "Eagle". Thank you for sharing.

russell, I assure you that almost none of it is as high-level or impressive as it sounds, after all I only tell you guys the interesting highlights. I've mainly just been lucky to be in the right place at the right time!

I've mainly just been lucky to be in the right place at the right time!

The art of life.

It's a super-power if you ask me.

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