Sat, Dec

Magic Mission

Apollo 11 was, as Neil Armstrong said, one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind - and also a giant leap for technology that, years later, created the industry, wide-format printing, in which Mole Graphics operates. When I watched the documentary at the local picture palace, it struck me, for the first time, how audacious, complicated and preposterous the entire mission was.

The clip from John F. Kennedy’s moon speech summed it up brilliantly. The task he set in 1962 was to send a giant rocket, more than 300ft tall, made partly of metals and alloys that were yet to be invented, that could stand stresses several times greater than had ever been experienced, on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body 240,000 miles away and, at speeds of 25,000mph, causing heat that was half as hot as the sun, return the crew safely to earth. 

NASA’s four Apollo 11 computers collectively had less power than Mole Junior’s new iPhone. The manoeuvres - the jettisoning of Saturn 3, the undocking - and docking - of the Columbia spacecraft and the Eagle landing module - and the calculations required to send Apollo 11 into Earth’s orbit (and out of it), into the Moon’s orbit (and out of it) and back into Earth’s orbit, are still mind-boggling. 

All this was achieved with fewer glitches than we suffer bedding in a new digital printer. The 1201 and 1202 alarms that sounded just before landing were triggered by spurious radar data clogging up NASA’s system. Buzz Aldrin realised they were triggered whenever he asked the computer to display Eagle’s speed and distance to the landing site and, with mission-saving pragmatism, just asked Houston to tell them the data.

I left the cinema in awe at the mission itself, how far technology has come and, sadly, how limited our ambitions have subsequently become.

Afterwards, an usher asked me if I thought Apollo 11 really had landed on the Moon. “Probably,” I said. “Why are there no stars in the images?” he said. “It’s doing my head in.” 

The simple answer that because Armstrong and Aldrin were taking photos of brightly lit, white shiny objects, they shot with a fast exposure time and a small aperture. In those conditions, it would be impossible to capture faint objects in a dark background, like stars. The question also indicated that what Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins (who piloted Columbia) accomplished remains so astonishing that, 50 years later, some people still find it unbelievable.


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