16.07.2009 08:44 - T minus 4 days and counting.
Forty years ago today, Apollo 11 took off for the moon.
Although I was only three, I can still remember all the excitement. Going to the moon! It's an atmosphere that has rarely been equalled. My parents woke me up to see the moon landing. It was all very matter-of-fact, and disguised the fact that Aldrin and Armstrong were flying a ship which was effectively a prototype, and that they only landed thanks to some skin-of-the-teeth flying due to the guidance computer failing, and their target landing site being festooned with boulders likely to tip the LM over, meaning that they had to hover and select a new site on the fly. It wouldn't be until November and Apollo 12 that Pete Conrad (largely responsible for testing the LM) would do a textbook landing in the much-improved LM. That year, for christmas, I got an Airfix Saturn 5, that my father had carefully built and painted.
It wasn't until September 2008, in the blockhouse at Kennedy Space Centre, that the sheer power of a Saturn 5 launch was brought home to me. As you stand in the blockhouse, a film is replayed of the launch of Apollo 8 - the first circumlunar Apollo, and the first manned Saturn 5. TV footage of the launch diminishes the effect enormously. Seeing the launch projected on a huge screen makes you feel the tremendous forces being unleashed, and even then it's dramatically reduced from the real thing.
A year on from Apollo 11, I can remember sitting in front of our old black and white TV, waiting to hear news about Apollo 13. That was a very different kind of atmosphere. After Apollo 12, where the new, high-tech portable video camera had given up the ghost due to being accidentally pointed at the sun, TV had begun to ignore the moon landings. Until the explosion. All of a sudden, it was being forcibly demonstrated that three men couldn't be further away from help if they tried, and that manned spaceflight was extremely dangerous. I didn't know this, of course, but I picked up on the mood. The relief, when the capsule finally parachuted into the sea, was palpable.