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Apollo 11: it was 45 years ago today

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What a time to ‘have to’ go and buy milk. Mid-morning Monday, July 21 1969, and my mother sends me up the street to get some milk. No big deal, you might say. However, a few hours prior to then, at 6:17 AEST that morning to be precise, a fragile craft, called the Eagle, had landed on the Moon – our Moon. Piloting it were two even more fragile beings, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and sometime that morning they would leave the Eagle and become the first people to ever walk on the Moon. The first people to ever walk on an other world – stop and think about that – what a stupendous human achievement – meanwhile I was running up the street to get the milk. Isn’t it interesting what we sometimes think of as important?

On that Monday I was home, special permission from the school because we had a television and my parents would be home, like so many others, to watch this historic event. All around Australia similar events were unfolding, those who could were at their homes watching, those who couldn’t were gathered together at schools to watch the event live. I can’t remember what others thought of the event at the time. I was enthralled, as were my close friends – despite living in suburban Australia, the space race was part of our intellectual growing-up.

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By the completion of the first three (unmanned) Apollo missions on  April 4, 1968 I was well engaged with the race to the moon.  Interest in the American space program was a huge boost for my interest in science. This is despite the non-scientific nature of the Apollo program. Many scientists in the US decried the Apollo program as a waste of money. Instead there was a very vocal and influential support for unmanned, or robotic exploration, which could return greater scientific returns for less cost, and less risk. This debate culminated in the ‘forced’ inclusion of scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the final moon landing of the Apollo era. Of course this was a distinction that, as a primary school child, I was completely unaware.

As I, then safely returned from my milk expedition, watched, along with an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population, the moon-walk at 12:39 AEST, and heard those now famous words of Neil Armstrong’s it is safe to assume that I, amongst many others, was hooked by this spectacle. I was for ever changed in a very positive way. Cynics may deride what we gained from the moon race, or even the $25.4billion expenditure by the US to put 12 men on the Moon, and get them back safely. Some may even playfully question whether the the ‘eternal mystique of the moon could survive the onslaught of cold hard science.’  I still think that this was the greatest technological achievement in human history – one that will take some beating. In addition the view of the Earth from space, most famously photographed as ‘Earthrise’ by Bill Anders on board Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968 forever changed how we ‘see’ the Earth. This one image created an environmental awareness of the fragile Earth that has blossomed with time.

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I will admit to feeling sorry for younger generations, living in a post Apollo world, without ever feeling the awe that this event.

                                                                                    

Fifteen years on from the Apollo 11 landing I emerged from the subterranean bunker of the accelerator at Lucas Heights, home of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. It was dark, the stars were out, and Rob Elliman and I chatted as we clambered into a bright yellow jeep, a superannuated relic from Maralinga days, on our way to a dinner break before continuing a 48 weekend stint on the accelerator. “I wanted to be an astronaut,” I commented as I glanced up at the moon, “Yes, me too” says Rob, “Irony is probably so did most of  our generation of physicists – and where did we end up?” “In a bunker pinging ions off semiconductor crystals,” I answer, “mmm,” completes Rob, as we roar off in the jeep. Impact is such a difficult concept to tie down.

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