Magnificent desolation

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Planetarium Operator, John Moran, gives us his thoughts on one of the most important anniversaries of the year...

On 20 July 2009 we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of arguably the most momentous occasion in history, the moon landing by the crew of Apollo 11.

Lunar module on the moon

The lunar module on the moon's surface. Image courtesy of NASA.

We are marking this occasion at World Museum Liverpool with the launch (no pun intended) of a brand new show in the Planetarium about the moon called 'Magnificent Desolation'. The title of this new show was taken from the words of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, as he set foot on the moon after Neil Armstrong. When he surveyed the landscape he described it as "magnificent desolation".

The rocket they used to push them to the moon is still the most powerful rocket ever created. It was the 363ft, three stage, Saturn V, 95% of which was filled with fuel and would be jettisoned once the fuel had burned up. It was also the most advanced machine of its time.  

When I think about what it must have been like for these men I can't help but wonder where they got their courage from. They were sitting atop the biggest firework of all time travelling at a speed of 25,000 mph and although men had been into space quite a few times at that point, the testing of rockets had been rushed to say the least. We can assume that because it was a 'bragging rights' competition between America and Russia that was fuelling (again no pun intended) this space race, there must have been a lot of corners cut just to get it ready. Also this mission was going a lot further than most; 238,857 miles to be exact, so these guys were going to be spending about three days just getting to the moon. That is a long time to spend twiddling your thumbs and imagining what could go wrong. 

Once the command module reached lunar orbit (piloted by the often forgotten Michael Collins) Armstrong and Aldrin would then make their way down in the lunar module called Eagle. This was probably the most unlikely looking flying machine of all time. It was so flimsy that it couldn't be flown anywhere else but in the vacuum of space because a fierce wind on Earth would have probably blown it apart; however, weather is not an issue in space. In fact, whilst practicing flying a machine similar to the lunar module here on Earth, Neil Armstrong came close to losing his life when he lost control and had to eject. Because there is only one sixth of Earth's gravity trying to pull you down on the moon, the lunar module would be much easier to control and manoeuvre. 

Mission control had picked out what they thought to be the perfect landing spot in the Sea of Tranquillity. However, when Armstrong and Aldrin headed for this spot they realized that it was nothing more than a huge crater filled with rocks and boulders. This is where Armstrong’s cool, unflappable mind came into its own. He had to fly around and find a suitable landing site or the whole mission would be a failure. So with the fuel gauge reading only twelve seconds of fuel left, alarms going off on the instrument panel and mission control telling him to abort, the message the world had been holding its breath for came back: "Houston, Tranquillity base here, the Eagle has landed".  

Later, leaving behind their back-packs, tools, boots and other needless weight - so they could bring back some moon rock - they successfully blasted off and met up with the waiting command module. After safely making their way back through the Earth's atmosphere and making a perfect slash-down in the ocean, the celebrations could begin.  

Imagine what the feeling must have been like for these guys knowing that you had just written your name into the history books for all time. I guess this is how they were able to overcome their fears; the national celebrations, the ticker-tape parades and the endless affection that was going to be felt by the whole world.

They truly must have felt over the moon (and that pun was definitely intended!)