One Small Step for a Man…

On this day in 1969, humans set foot on another world for the very first time. Six and a half hours after landing on the lunar surface, astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the Lunar Lander Eagle and climbed down the ladder to take his first steps on the surface of the Moon, with the immortal declaration “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. He was joined about twenty minutes later by co-pilot Buzz Aldrin.

I remember watching this on television as a young child of eight years of age. It was very early in the morning, (UK/Irish time), almost 3am, and my Dad had dragged me out of bed, bleary-eyed, to see the great event as it happened. I stood there, mouth wide open in amazement, watching the images on our old black and white television. Armstrong climbing down the steps, Aldrin joining him, the two astronauts, with their languid, almost slow-motion bouncing around on the lunar surface, planting the US flag, and collecting rock samples and other material to take back to Earth. Even at that early age, I was a hardcore space freak, and I fully understood that this was a most momentous, unforgettable event in human history. It is still one of the greatest memories from my childhood.

I know how memory can cheat, especially from so long ago, and at such an early age. It seems in my ancient memories as though they were out on the surface of the Moon for hours and hours, bouncing around and having fun, and that the Eagle was on the lunar surface for days. But they actually spent less than two and a half hours outside before climbing back aboard Eagle, and less than a day on the lunar surface before Eagle lifted off to rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia and Michael Collins, high above in lunar orbit.

The rest is history. The return to Earth, the splashdown, the triumphant celebrations. It seemed like the solar system was just waiting for us, and that we would be on the Moon, Mars and beyond before the end of the twentieth century. So what happened? Why did the Apollo programme peter out and manned space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit end?

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Public apathy combined with corrupt, greedy, disinterested politicians who saw no more votes or money in funding manned spaceflight to the planets. But what a pathetic, lame excuse to bring such a premature end to mankind’s colonisation of space. We should be out there now, at least as far as the Asteroid Belt.

Hey, maybe in an alternate timeline we did it all. It’s nice to dream, isn’t it? 🙂

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The Eagle Has Landed – 47 Years Ago Today

It’s been a busy week for space anniversaries. Yesterday was “Mars Day”, the 40th Anniversary of the landing of the Viking 1 lander on the surface of Mars, so I guess we could call today “Moon Day”, with the 47th Anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon.

On the morning of 16th July, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 and its crew lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first manned mission to take off with the mission of actually landing on the lunar surface, rather than just orbiting it. On the evening of 20th July, 1969, the climax of the Apollo 11 mission approached, as the Lunar Lander Eagle detached from the Command Module Columbia and descended down towards the lunar surface with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board (with Michael Collins remaining above in the Command Module).

Armstrong’s famous words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” heralded the landing of the Eagle on the lunar surface. It would be another six hours, early on the morning of June 21st, before Neil Armstrong was to take his very first steps on the Moon, to be joined twenty minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.

The first landing by humans on another world. One of the greatest moments in human history, in my opinion. So when are we going back, again, for good this time?

Channel 4 Cancels Time Team

In last week’s edition of Radio Times (March 23rd-29th), I was extremely saddened to read that Channel 4 has scrapped their excellent and popular archaeology series, Time Team, which has graced UK television screens for the past twenty years.

As a big fan of archaeology and history, this news has come as a huge disappointment to me. Time Team is one of my favourite programmes on UK television, and over the years has helped to popularize and animate archaeology and history for the general viewing public. It is both educational AND entertaining, something which is greatly lacking in most television scheduling these days. So to find out that Time Team is being dumped by Channel 4, frankly, sucks Big Time.

Some people would say that twenty years is a good run, but the show is always fresh and entertaining, and getting better, year by year. So why cancel it and replace it with yet another piece of mindless crap that we don’t need? Yet another bloody programme about cooking (isn’t obesity rampant enough already?), buying houses, auctioning, or whatever other cheap, boring fad that the TV channels are obsessed with riding into the ground? As soon as one of these programmes achieves a certain level of success, multiple clones inevitably sprout up all over the place, like weeds. There’s already far too much of this rubbish on TV. We don’t need any more.

I’m one of those viewers who prefers to watch programming that’s a bit more educational and informative, dealing with subjects such as science, history, and current affairs, rather than the endless parade of mindless, vacuous reality TV, soaps and sitcoms that the television channels constantly force down our throats. But hey, I’m all for a bit of variety, and I’m well aware that a large section of the population actually LIKES reality TV, soaps and sitcoms (God help us all). I can’t stand this kind of thing myself, but I am more than willing to compromise, just as long as there’s also something on TV occasionally for me.

Television channels should cater for everybody, minority tastes as well as more mainstream, popular viewing. But the sad fact is, in recent years they have done so less and less. There is little left on commercial television for the more discerning viewer, and we have so much cheap, unimaginative, unintelligent copy-cat programming infesting our television screens that I’m often driven to despair, trying to find something that’s actually worth watching. We may have a lot more television channels these days, but they are full of complete rubbish and endless repeats. The quality of television viewing has definitely declined over the years, and we can ill afford to lose a great series like Time Team.

Just by coincidence, my late Thursday night viewing this week included a 20 Years of Time Team special on Channel 4. Apparently this, according to the Radio Times, is the VERY LAST programme in the series, so I’m absolutely gutted. I’m sure that Time Team repeats will abound in future, but we really need new programmes in this excellent series. If tired, boring soaps like Eastenders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street can rattle on endlessly for decade after decade, why can’t something as interesting as Time Team? The series deserves at least another twenty years, if you ask me.

Next time I partake of the demon drink, I’ll raise a glass to Tony, Phil, Mike, Carenza and the rest of the Time Team crew, and pray that this isn’t the last we’ll see of this talented bunch and their herculean efforts to make archaeology fun and accessible to the man and woman in the street. RIP Time Team, but I hope it’s not for long.

Reading History: The Invention That Changed the World by Robert Buderi

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and in my other (non-SF geek) life I’m actually an historian by profession (I used to be a history teacher, believe it or not). So, for a change, I’m going to recommend not an SF book, but this really fascinating BuderiPic-2 technological history book that I picked up a few years ago, and which has been sitting in my “to read” pile for donkeys ages now. The book is The Invention That Changed the World, written by acclaimed author Robert Buderi. I’ve at last finally gotten around to digging it out for a proper read, and it’s long past time that I did.

One of the main things that attracted me to this book is the fact that it not only covers World War II (one of my favourite historical periods), but also does so from a perspective that I rarely see in history books. I have to admit that I’m finding it both unusual and refreshing to read a WWII history from a different, technological perspective, rather than a social or military one, which is what you see in the vast majority of history books.

World War II and the post-war period has always been one of my favourite historical eras, and I’ve also always had a fascination for science and technology from any era, past or present. Any book which mixes technology with history has a great chance of being a winner with me. And this one does it in style. So it wouldn’t be too far wide of the mark to say that I’m enjoying The Invention That Changed the World, and I’m enjoying it a lot.

The importance and implications of the development of radar and the part it played in the Allied victory during the war simply cannot be stressed enough. It was absolutely pivotal in the victory of the RAF over the Luftwaffe in 1940, and, in the later stages of the war, the non-stop Allied aerial bombing campaign that helped bring Germany to its knees would not have been nearly as effective but for radar, which allowed bombing flights to be continued in all types of weather, day and night.

I think that this blurb from the back cover sums it up nicely:

‘The Invention That Changed the World is a technological thriller better than Tom Clancy’s best. It will introduce you to wonderful characters you will never forget. The atomic bomb was a sideshow in World War II compared to radar – and finally Robert Buderi tells the amazing story of radar’s invention in the heat of war and its equally amazing elaboration across the years.’
                RICHARD RHODES

‘Nuff said. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Go out and get it from your local bookshop or library, right now. You won’t regret it.

The Apollo 11 Moon Landings and After – The Space Adventure That Should Have Been

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Man’s first setting foot on another world, when Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface, There’s the expected buzz on the internet, and a few television programs celebrating the event. At the moment, we’re watching Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 on UK television (ITV1).

I’ve always been a huge space exploration nut, so much so that my dad dragged me out of bed around 3.30am UK time on that long ago unforgettable day (I remember it vividly – I was only eight years old, and was a fan even then) to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first momentous steps onto the lunar surface. Even today I feel great excitement and elation whenever I read or watch anything to do with that golden age of space exploration. But I also feel a great sense of loss, of regret, and of anger.

Because the truth is that we had the stars in our hands and let them slip through our fingers.

To the current XBox playing, goldfish-attention-span generation, the moon landings mean absolutely nothing. They’re an irrelevancy, ancient history, something that happened way back when their parents were young. It shouldn’t be this way. Space travel, real space travel (not just space shuttle earth-to-low-orbit), should be a part of their everyday lives.

It’s a terrible shame that manned space exploration (outside of Earth’s orbit) died when the Apollo missions ended, scuppered by the nasty mix of public apathy and political connivance. Politicians won’t fund anything that doesn’t get them votes, and the public had lost interest, so the politicians therefore refused to continue funding the big bucks needed for this kind of space exploration.

So we lost it all, because of the dumb, apathetic general public and greedy, corrupt politicians. Wouldn’t ya know it. It makes me sick to even think about it. Ninety-nine percent of the general public can’t see past their daily fix of reality TV and sport, and politicians aren’t interested in anything that won’t get them votes, money or power.

We should’ve… would’ve… been “out there” now, with a lunar colony and a permanent base on Mars, just waiting to stretch our hands out and grasp the rest of the solar system. We should already be taking our earliest steps as a proper, space-faring species, out there, traveling regularly between Earth and the moon and even Mars, and looking with eager envious eyes at the asteroid belt and beyond, like Dan Dare and his Space Fleet.

For a dreamer and sci-fi/space exploration fan such as myself (and there are many, many others like me out there), it really, really sticks in my gut, every time one of these anniversaries of this glorious first lunar landing event comes around, and I look at the reality of what did happen, and think of what should’ve happened instead.

Think of it… we took our first steps on another world, and then just gave up and came home again, instead of keeping on going out there. So, so tragic, and absolutely pathetic.

There’s one vital thing those selfish, greedy, narrow-minded politicians and the ignorant, self-serving bulk of the population don’t seem to understand or care about. Space travel and exploration is not irrelevant or a waste of money. Our species simply has to move out into space to ensure its long-term survival. If we keep all our eggs in one basket (here on Earth), someday we’ll live (or won’t live) to regret it. We’ll become extinct, either through natural catastrophe, or we’ll destroy the environment, this world, ourselves, and we will have nowhere else to go.

Or else another stonking great rock will come at us from the depths of space, with Target Earth and RIP the Human Race written all over it. And it’ll be all their fault if our species dies off totally, and I hope they (or their descendants) remember that when the big space rock comes at us with our number written on it. It has happened quite a few times before during Earth’s history, and it’ll inevitably happen again. Maybe in a thousand years time, or ten thousand. Or it could just as easily be next week, or tomorrow. We should always be prepared for that eventuality, just in case, and setting up colonies on the Moon or Mars would be first steps towards ensuring that our species would not be wiped out, should the unthinkable ever happen. As I’ve already said, the old proverb about keeping all of our eggs in one basket is very apt here, and continuing to do so would be a very, VERY bad idea for humanity.

However, if we’re thinking about starting all over again, getting back out into space, we’d better get a move on. Our civilization only has a relatively small window of opportunity left, before the oil and other industrial resources are gone, and we no longer have the capability of launching space missions. After that, we really will be stuck here, with nowhere to go.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m watching Moonshot, but with a lot of mixed feelings. A sense of excitement and nostalgia, but also of anger and regret. And in my alternate world of “What Should Have Been”, I’ll be dreaming of those brave colonists striding across the surface of the Moon and Mars and conquering new frontiers for the human race.

Hominids in the House: Distant Relatives

There was a nice article in Nature recently relating a few interesting facts about some startling hominid fossil finds in Kenya, finds which challenge some long-held views on human evolution.

There were two fossils – a broken upper jawbone and an intact skull – nothing too startling in that. But what was startling is that these finds challenge the standard theory that Homo Habilis evolved into the more advanced Homo Erectus, who later evolved into us. Now it appears that they were “sister species”, that they overlapped in time, and lived side by side at some point. Another long-held standard theory bites the dust?

This brings back memories of an article which I read in Scientific American two or three years back. This article stated that, at one point in the past (can’t recall exactly how long ago), no less than thirteen separate species of hominids existed side by side on this planet, each occupying their own little niche. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

It’s even harder to believe that all of them, bar our own direct ancestors, died out solely through natural selection. Methinks our ancestors were just as handy with the old “ethnic cleansing” as many of their dishonorable descendants. Maybe some kind of evolutionary or biological imperative built into us that we’ll have to overcome before we can consider ourselves really “civilized”.

Reminds me of an early episode of Babylon 5, in which a drunken Londo was bragging that the Centauri used to exist alongside another intelligent species on their homeworld, but eventually exterminated them. Londo’s views on this awful genocide? “Good riddance!”

Sounds just like us. The Centauri and Earthers are descended from a common ancestor, if you ask me.

Some Interesting Prehistoric Stuff

I love to browse the Sci-Tech page (page 154) on BBC1’s Ceefax (teletext) service. There’s always a lot of interesting snippets culled from various sources such as the New Journal of Physics, Nature and Science magazines. My favourite areas of interest are astronomy and space exploration, and palaeontology, and here are a couple of palaeontology snippets from recent pages:

Apparently scientists in Germany, Switzerland and the US claim that they’ve found the point at which the African and Indian elephants split and diverged from a common ancestor. They compared genetic research done on both species and other research done on the extinct woolly mammoth and mastodon, and came to the conclusion that the split occurred 7.6 million years ago.

Another interesting snippet concerns the dinosaurs. Accepted theories state that when the dinosaurs first evolved, they swept all before them, and rendered the earlier, more primitive forms of reptiles (known as dinosauromorphs) quickly extinct. Apparently that’s considered now not to be the case, and both lived side by side for many millions of years.

Just a couple of interesting snippets from the pages of Sci-Tech. Go to Ceefax page 154, and git yerselves ejjicated a bit. 🙂