Category Archives: Science

The Moon Landing-Fact or Fiction!

Neil Armstrong made “one small step for man” fifty years ago, and during the anniversary celebrations for the Apollo 11 mission, I couldn’t help but notice on social media the large number of people who believe this achievement never happened, and that the story was fabricated. This hit home even more whilst viewing the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in early August, where I spotted a beautiful moon picture 729 (acrylic on paper map) by Ray Verrall called COVER UP. Although the title may have simply been an indication of how the artist created his piece, I interpreted the meaning as being similar to Fake News, and this deeply angered me. I have always believed the moon landing did happen, and here are my reasons why.

When the space race began in the late 50s there were much fewer areas of opportunity where an individual, company or government could invest time, energy and money. The Apollo era of the 60s and early 70s seemed a time of optimism and idealism, where the US government willingly supported investment into technology and science companies to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. The investment was in a common cause to beat the Russians at their own game, and win the ultimate prize in the space race.  Cynicism followed, engulfing the mid 70s and much of the 80s where hardnosed business and mass commercialisation began to rule the world. The late 90s crash brought us all back down to earth! An introspective time began, which also coincided with an era where the options for investment were far greater, and so resulted in a more diluted effect encompassing projects. It’s for this reason I believe man hasn’t returned to the moon again. The appetite isn’t there, governments are too busy fighting within themselves, rather than pursuing a common goal to beat the opposition.

Commercial big money and the accumulation of it, such as property, banking, stocks and shares drive the economy today. Not so much the investment in speculative projects, which requires the spending of massive amounts of cash. The global financial crash sent shock waves around the world. In the Noughties a tendency for introspection and wariness began, but the damage was already done. It still seems that speculation to accumulate wealth gets approval, but speculation to invest is looked upon with suspicion.

These days we see a far greater number of individual multi-millionaires than in the 50s/60s. It is those people who are more likely to be entrepreneurial enough to be inclined, or enticed, to invest in “high risk” projects like the space program. The US government of the 60s in particular, seized the opportunity to invest in an ideal. Today, governments are not likely to be so heavily involved or motivated in this type of endeavour, being fuelled more by big egos verging at times in despotism.

In closing, I can understand why some people believe in conspiracy theories, especially when they involve events from an era less digitised (no social media, 24/7 news or internet). With today’s modern technology you can access, analyse and dissect information, in a way that wasn’t conceivable a few decades ago. However, I fully believe that the Apollo missions did take man successfully to the moon and back. Astronaut Michael Collins who remained in the command module said “we are like the periscope on a submarine; you see us but underneath are thousands who keep us in position”. The Apollo project was geographically diverse, enjoyed astronomical expenditure, and involved thousands of personnel from government, military and civilian organisations. Keeping such a massive collection of people and company data effectively gagged for half a century, I find highly unlikely. But to question the integrity of the Apollo astronauts, I find both distasteful and unforgiveable. The Apollo 11 crew all left the space program, and Buzz Aldrin’s subsequent battle with depression and alcoholism, suggests little thought was given to aftercare. When you look at the space program as a whole, and consider the horrific deaths of the Apollo 1 crew, Aldrin’s personal difficulties, and the high casualty rate on astronaut marriages, it’s too much of a sacrifice, just to enable the perpetuation of a facade.

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50 Year Old History Lesson-Man on the Moon

On July 16th 1969 Apollo X1 launched 3 astronauts on a historic mission into space: the goal, to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. These last few days I’ve enjoyed learning more about Apollo 11’s story and seeing it through fresh eyes, thanks to three fabulous pieces of film. I’d like to share some thoughts about them here.

By chance, I discovered the “Apollo11 Movie” was showing in selected cinemas for a limited period, none of them local to where I live. Luckily I was on a whistle stop visit to Glasgow and managed to see it at the Film Theatre. Shortly after, at the local VUE cinema I attended a “one night only” Q&A viewing of the documentary film “Armstrong”. Then a few days ago, I watched a docu-drama on BBC2 called “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back”.  For “Armstrong” Neil’s family provided interviews and access to private home movies, whilst former work colleagues’ and friends, shared their memories of the man who made history. It greatly helped in understanding Neil a little bit more. The other two films used previously unseen footage mixed with recognisable archive material, and declassified audio files giving access to crew dialogue never heard before, which allowed a fresh perspective on events.

Sitting watching the “Apollo11 Movie” the sheer magnitude of the operation was overwhelming. I always knew the rocket was big, BUT the sight of workmen walking in front/alongside the platform taking Apollo XI to the launch pad, was stunning. The enormous platform tracks moving so slowly, giving the sense of barely perceptible movement emphasised just how huge the platform and its rocket load were. How tiny those men seemed in the vastness of it all, rather like the photo showing the lunar module on the moon surface, with a tiny Earth hanging above them in the blackness of space. Similarly the lunar module appeared miniscule against the moon backdrop on its return to the command module. The sheer size and weight of the rocket was unwittingly summed up by Neil’s eldest son in the “Armstrong” documentary. He couldn’t see the actual rocket on the launch pad after ignition, because it was engulfed in clouds of billowing smoke and initially rose very slowly. In every film the noise created by the fireball of burning rocket fuel was tremendous. The background music in the “Apollo 11 Movie” was powerfully atmospheric, complimented the spoken audio and beautifully enhanced the pictures seen. I wasn’t aware that as the astronauts were climbing into the capsule ready for lift-off, engineers were still at work fixing a critical valve that was showing a malfunction! I knew there was little fuel left in the lunar module as it approached the moon surface, but was shocked to read 16 seconds worth in the film. During the Q&A segment after “Armstrong” I heard it was 18 seconds, but both films agreed that less than 5% capacity was left in the tank.

The documentary regarding Neil Armstrong was informative, evocative and heartbreaking at times. The footage of Neil and Janet with their first two children Eric and Karen was particularly poignant, as Karen developed a brain tumour and died aged three on her parents wedding anniversary. Everyone was devastated, and clearly Neil threw himself into his work even more as a way of coping, or perhaps avoiding the emotional fallout. His wife Janet, the glue of the family kept things going, and had another son Mark shortly after Karen’s passing. Throughout the interviews it was obvious Neil’s long absences for work and his reluctance to talk about much of anything, hugely impacted on Janet.

From his first 20 cent toy aeroplane Armstrong was obsessed with flight, gaining his pilot’s licence before his driver’s one. He got a navy scholarship to university, served in Korea and returned afterwards to complete his studies. From there he went on to fly F-15s before joining the space program. NASA  protocol would have had Buzz Aldrin as first man, but Neil’s more measured quiet and introspective nature seems to have been considered more appropriate, considering the magnitude and significance of the moment. And so Buzz was relegated. I wonder if it was him who saluted the US flag after President Nixon’s phone call. I hadn’t fully appreciated the flag salute, until I recalled that Armstrong was termed a civilian astronaut. I thought they were either all military or civilian, having left the services to enter the space program. Another thing that surprised me, was the fact there had been great debate about whether the US or UN flag should be unfurled on the moon. Neil apparently said that “others cleverer and better educated than him made the decision”. Dumb debate I thought, American mission, money, vision and astronauts, so a no brainer for me. A beautiful song played as the credits rolled for “Armstrong”, and during the Q&A I discovered it was a poem written by Neil Armstrong’s son Mark and sung by Mark’s daughter. It was a fitting tribute.

“Eight Days: to the Moon & Back” was an intriguing mix of new and archive material with added dramatic enactment. The first fascinating insight was the number of hours in space each astronaut had accumulated before Apollo XI: Aldrin over 90, Collins over 70 and Armstrong barely over 13 hours. This may have been partly due to Neil’s uncomfortable ride on Gemini VIII which spun uncontrollably after docking with a target vehicle, resulting in the mission being curtailed. Talked about in the “Armstrong” film, Neil showed great presence of mind to save the situation. His eldest son recalled how NASA had installed a squawk box at home, so mission control transmissions could be heard. When things turned sour with possible fatal consequences, the squawk box went silent because NASA  didn’t want to broadcast bad news. Janet Armstrong went to mission control to find out what was going on, and was denied access or any news. Eric mused that he wouldn’t have liked to be the one facing his mother’s wrath that day.

I was reminded of a book called “The Astronaut Wives Club” that told the space program story, from the wives point of view. What was clear to me was the seemingly complete dereliction of duty NASA displayed toward the families. Effectively space program astronauts and their wives were launched into a celebrity kind of existence, without any media training, psychological, medical or pastoral care for the wives and families. The Armstrong squawk box saga was a prime example of this blasé attitude. The insatiable lust for any kind of news during the Apollo XI mission required the crew to make frequent TV broadcasts from space. And when they returned to Earth, a worldwide tour engulfed them and put them into a situation they were neither prepared nor trained for. It’s something of a miracle that Neil Armstrong with his few but pinpoint accurate words, had a way of summing up things beautifully. The sentiment “how vulnerable the Earth looked, how it must be protected not from natural disaster, or technology but from man himself” I found incredibly meaningful.

Two surprising nuggets of information came to light regarding Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on this historic mission. More than once it was acknowledged that Aldrin helped enable the lunar module to launch from the moon surface. A vital switch was broken and Aldrin fixed it with his felt tip pen. One report mentioned that Buzz found a piece of plastic on the lunar surface, which may have come off the module control panel due to a knock from a space suit. He picked it up and replaced it with the help of his pen. The second point I found extremely moving, and was reported in the “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back” program. Aldrin took a piece of communion bread from his church to the moon, so he could give thanks with his Sunday meal taken on the lunar surface. The audio accompaniment to this had Aldrin requesting “that the people of the world take a moment to give thanks in any way they feel appropriate”.  A dramatised segment depicted Aldrin taking his communion bread, before we saw real footage of Walter Cronkite the US news anchor covering the moon landing, bowing his head in silent prayer. I was deeply moved at this point, much the same as Cronkite himself had been when the lunar module safely landed. The great news man admitted to being lost for words and was seen to brush away a tear. The enormity of the whole thing still gets to me as well, and I shed tears too. Who wouldn’t be emotional witnessing humankind’s greatest technical achievement?

 

 

YURI GAGARIN 55 Years of Immortality

Fifty-five years ago on 12th April 1961 Yuri Gagarin was launched into the Earth’s orbit and became the first spaceman. Cosmonauts Day in Russia honours Gagarin’s achievement and celebrates all cosmonauts who followed him into the vastness of space.

Gagarin came from very humble beginnings the son of a carpenter and dairymaid. World War II and the German invasion of Russia halted young Yuri’s education. He managed to catch up on his studies after the war and showed a determination to further his knowledge by leaving home. Living with an uncle in Moscow, he enrolled as a 15 year old into a technical high school at Lyubertsy and followed what seems to have been a vocational apprenticeship course (possibly foundation level) in steelworks (foundry man). On completing his two year course he undertook a further four years of study in the same field, and graduated in 1955 aged 21 a fully qualified steel cast-moulder.

Yuri had apparently hoped to be a gymnast and was given the opportunity of following his dream, but decided to complete his four year foundry course instead of attending physical training school. Had he not turned his back on his sporting dream, history would have been very different. For it was during his time at the Saratov Industrial Technical School that Yuri joined the Aero Club. His obvious natural abilities were recognised in the flying club and Yuri was justly rewarded with a recommendation for the Orenburg Military Aviation School. This led him into the Soviet Air-Force in 1956 and being picked for specialist cosmonaut training in 1959 (undoubtedly helped by his small stature of 5ft 2in or 1.57m).

The Soviets used space dogs initially to test the effects of space travel on living organisms, and the successful return of Belka and Strelka after an orbital flight of over 24 hours in August 1960 paved the way for Gagarin. The space sickness suffered by Belka on the fourth orbit of her mission most probably influenced the Soviets decision that man would initially do only one orbit of the Earth. A final orbital flight on 25th March 1961 with the dog Little Star and a mannequin (Ivan Ivanovich) successfully tested the ejector seat system Gagarin would use.

In the early hours of April 12th 1961 the Vostok spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome with 27 year old Yuri Gagarin on board. His total flight time of 108 minutes included around 89 minutes in orbit where the speed reached in the region of 27,400 km per hour. Travelling some 327km above the earth Gagarin truly had a heavenly view of our planet and the stars, but all too soon the automated flight systems brought him back, to instant worldwide acclaim. Sadly, on March 27th 1968 just short of the seventh anniversary of this amazing achievement, the Soviets made the announcement of the untimely death of Yuri Gagarin in a training accident aged 34. His ashes are buried in the walls of the Kremlin where he is honoured to this day for his launch into immortality.

The Americans followed Yuri’s epic trip a few weeks later on May 5th, when Alan Shepherd aboard Freedom 7 completed the first-US manned SUB-orbital flight, duration fifteen minutes. Interestingly his mission had originally been scheduled for April, but NASA delayed it to complete more tests on the rocket. Had they been less cautious an American could have been the first human to technically enter outer-space? But Yuri’s pioneering travel ensured that the USA in the early days of the “space-race” was always playing catch-up.

You can listen to my hospital radio space themed tribute to Yuri Gagarin here:

https://soundcloud.com/angies_allsorts/space-theme-from-230316

Treasured mementos from Cosmonaut Exhibition. Image credit abmj
Treasured mementos from Cosmonaut Exhibition. Image credit abmj

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler: Noel Coward Theatre

Nicole Kidman put in a star performance as Rosalind Franklin the scientist who developed the world famous x-ray diffraction photograph, the pivotal piece of information that helped reveal the structure of DNA. Franklin was undoubtedly a pioneer in her field but never received the accolade of having her name alongside Crick, Watson and Wilkins, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962. In fact Rosalind didn’t even live to see the sixties, having passed away in 1958 from cancer which she contracted possibly as a result of her x-ray diffraction work.

As I took my seat to watch a performance on the evening of Saturday 26th September I didn’t quite know what to expect, although I knew the basics of the story and the photograph itself very well. Nicole Kidman was utterly convincing as the brilliant, driven, fastidious and downright prickly Dr Rosalind Franklin, giving the character the necessary gravitas and emotional brittleness to drive the story which begins in France. Franklin is saying au revoir to her French colleagues, as she is about to take up a prestigious post with Dr Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London working on DNA.

On arrival at the subterranean laboratory of Kings College the conflict between Wilkins and Franklin begins virtually immediately. Wilkins bumbling English ways where his efforts to be nice are totally shredded by the abrasive Franklin, eventually results in them not being on speaking terms. Franklin as a Jewish woman may have felt it necessary to fight against everything to be taken even remotely seriously, especially working in the male dominated Christian created King’s College. After all she was living in post-war 1950s England where women stayed at home, had children and remained subservient to their husbands. So Franklin in the play works longer hours than her colleagues, has literally no life other than her work, and has an even stiffer upper lip than her English male counterparts. Unsurprisingly she is not the easiest person to get along with, and any genuine concern shown for her well-being is brushed aside. The scene where her PhD student is vainly trying to encourage care whilst maintaining the x-ray diffraction equipment is particularly poignant and my alarm here was palpable. For all Rosalind’s care and cautiousness at interpreting results, the play suggests impatience at delays, a consequence which could result in potentially deadly mistakes being made.

Crick and Watson the other main protagonists of the story are in a way the twin equivalent of Wilkins and Franklin. Crick doesn’t quite have the awkward bumbling manner of Wilkins but he heads his group at Cambridge as Wilkins does at Kings. Crick struck me as a facilitator who let or made things happen, whilst his post-doc student Watson seemed the driving force behind the groups work. James Watson was the same and yet opposite to Rosalind Franklin. Both scientists were brilliant at their work, driven by an insatiable inner force, with a tunnel-vision approach in trying to get their goal. They differed in that Franklin appeared to be cautious, had scant interest in other peoples “misguided theory” publications and worked by choice, virtually alone and shared none of her results. Watson seemed almost reckless at times, made it his mission to know what anyone was doing in the DNA field, and hoovered up bits of information whenever he could, to use at a later date. Watson seemed to happily bounce ideas off his supervisor Crick, who in turn went along with theories in more than one attempt to model the DNA structure.

The actor playing Watson showed remarkable guile and cunning whilst appearing to chat amiably about work in Maurice Wilkins office. In turn Wilkins naivety came through when he innocently showed Watson the best x-ray photograph to date. The beginnings of unravelling the DNA structure clearly took place at that moment. During the play an illuminated square on the stage floor was used to refer to the DNA structural model, the audience just had to use their imagination. But I witnessed and photographed the Guinness World Record certified DNA model construction by Keele University, so it was easy for me.

DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj
              DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj

Anna Ziegler’s writing throughout was exceptional with a touch of whimsy sprinkled occasionally in the dialogue, a case of “what might have been” scenarios. At these points Nicole Kidman was able to give her character more light and shade creating a more rounded and likeable persona. A scene on yearning is beautifully almost poetically phrased, where Rosalind for a moment, yields to an inner set of emotions that are perpetually kept in check. You could see Kidman’s face illuminate and the character for a split second bloom, before withering again. The effect is devastating particularly as the scene is used as a vehicle to introduce Franklin’s cancer diagnosis. At the end of the play there is juxtaposition between a character dying in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and hope staying alive. Rosalind and Maurice Wilkins are discussing a Laurence Olivier film and neither of them can remember the actress who played alongside him. Prophetically Franklin says “She just never put herself forward” which was also Rosalind’s epitaph. I was biting my lip at that point trying very hard not to cry, and a visibly moved Nicole Kidman could be seen brushing away tears as she accepted the audience’s applause.

I got the impression that Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to it quite quickly, whilst still part of Maurice Wilkins group in the early fifties. However this is where a little artistic licence has been used to keep the integrity of the play within the realms of Kings College, as the story gets a little complicated otherwise. Rosalind Franklin left Kings College and relocated to Birkbeck in March 1953 where she worked on the structure of viruses and RNA. The stipulation of her move prevented Franklin from continuing work in the DNA structure field (either by contract design or personal choice). It was whilst at Birkbeck in the autumn of 1956 that Rosalind discovered she had ovarian cancer, and she passed away on April 16th 1958 aged just 37.

Rosalind Franklin appears to have been the ultimate contradiction, both a woman ahead of her time but a product of her time. She refused to play the politics game in the lab viewing herself as an equal to Wilkins, not an assistant of his within the group. Whilst most women remained in the home, she worked in a male dominated field and was as good if not better than her counterparts, a true pioneer for working women of the future. Yet having been raised in an era where women were seen and not heard, Rosalind never ever put herself forward. Her almost pathological need to be absolutely sure about something before considering putting ideas into the public domain, and her reluctance to share results undoubtedly stems from her upbringing. That inability to take the leap of faith that science sometimes demands was sadly Franklin’s Achilles heel.

This play provides a unique glimpse into a pivotal moment in scientific history, as told through the story of Rosalind Franklin, a woman who has never received the accolades she truly deserved.

Photograph 51 limited season until 21st November 2015.

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 program. Image credit abmj
Nicole Kidman in Photograph51 program. Image credit abmj