Walking on the Moon
David Wilson remembered the evening of the 20th July 1969 because it was the day of his birthday, his eleventh birthday. It was also when the Apollo Eleven lunar module, the Eagle, landed on the moon in the Sea of Tranquillity, which wasn’t really a sea at all.
David had not wanted a party to celebrate his birthday because he wanted to watch the coverage of the moon landing on the television. He had blown out the candles on his cake whilst sitting watching any reporting of the event that he could find. His mother had made the cake, and on the top, she had iced a red rocket heading towards a lemon-yellow crescent moon. Her rendition had more in common with Dan Dare, The Mekon, and the Eagle comic than it did with Apollo and the lunar lander, but she could not have chosen a better theme for David. The week before, he had sat transfixed by a new American program on the television called Star Trek, and this week he got to watch the first step in the quest to change fantasy into reality.
Instructed to make a wish as he blew out the eleven candles (eleven for his birthday, or alternatively, eleven for Apollo), David wished that he was older, so that he could be the man who was going to walk on the moon before anybody else.
David’s interest in NASA had started the year before when the American space program had launched Apollo Seven, after which he watched every launch that he could on the television, and listened to the radio coverage on the transistor radio in his bedroom as the Apollo program came ever closer to putting a man on the moon.
His mother had told him that he could watch the television for as long as he wanted to that night, or for as long as he could stay awake. On the BBC, he listened to Cliff Michelmore analysing the event with help from Patrick Moore and James Burke. He much preferred their more serious scientific approach as opposed to the more frivolous party atmosphere coverage on ITV. The BBC were also using the far superior music talents of David Bowie’s Space Oddity (which he had bought two weeks earlier on the day of it’s release, the 11th July) and Pink Floyd’s specially recorded Moonhead. All ITV had to offer were the likes of Cilla Black, which in David’s opinion bore no comparison at all.
David already knew all the words to Space Oddity which he played continuously whilst singing along until his mother complained. Mothers are generally supportive, but she thought it necessary to point out that he couldn’t sing in tune anyway. He wanted to be Major Tom, or just as unrealistically, Neil Armstrong.
Part of David was excited that man was going to walk on the moon, whilst at the same time, part of him wanted the landing craft to develop a fault and have to leave before they got around to opening the door. It wasn’t that he wanted anything unpleasant to happen to the astronauts, he just wanted them to have to leave so that he, David Wilson, could go there at a later date, and be the first man to set foot on the moon.
It was six hours after the Eagle landed, and so it was the day after his birthday, that Neil Armstrong took that first step. When he made his ‘One small step’ speech, David thought that Armstrong was talking to him, which in a way, with his reference to mankind, he was. Nineteen minutes later, Buzz Aldrin followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface, and David would not now even be the second man to walk on the moon.
As the Apollo program progressed with further missions, David came to realise that he was not going to be the first man to drive a car on the moon, or the first man to play golf on the moon. As each milestone fell, and the possibilities diminished, so his will to be the first man to do something in space increased.
Space travel had gripped everyone’s imagination, and even the school teachers had got caught up in the excitement. In April, one of David’s teachers, Mr Troughton, had organised a school trip to the Science Museum and then onto the Planetarium in London.
They had all arrived outside the school early with their packed lunches. When the coach pulled up in a cloud of diesel fumes, they had all cheered.
The front seat was reserved for Mr Troughton and another teacher, Miss Wright, who had volunteered to help out with the supervision for the day. Their seats were marked by the placement of their bags and coats adjacent to each other. This was a mistake, because the children were now convinced that Mr Troughton fancied Miss Wright (who Mr Troughton sometimes unprofessionally called Polly) and it would become the hot topic of the school playground. The rumour was true, and so for the rest of the year the two romantics pretended that it wasn’t.
The girls were allowed on the coach first, taking up all of the front rows behind the teacher’s seats, and then the boys, the biggest and strongest commandeering the back seats. David finished up halfway down the coach in an aisle seat (he didn’t even merit a window seat). He felt - and in reality, was - some way down the pecking order.
Inside the museum, they were told to stay in the groups to which they had been allotted. David was in Miss Wright’s group. This worked well enough near the entrance where Foucault’s Pendulum was the only exhibit, and at first in the main hall where the giant beam engines dominated, demanding the attention of all. Once it became known that there were handles to be turned and buttons to be pressed on many of the display cabinets, discipline began to break down, and the children were stampeding off everywhere.
David was no different, and despite being shouted at and told along with everyone else, not to ‘wander off far’ (although the general speed of departure could not realistically be described as ‘wandering’), on seeing a stairway leading upwards, reasoned that if he raced up them to peer over the balcony edging the hall, he would still be in the same room, and so would not have ‘wandered off far’.
When he, and half a dozen of his comrades, stood at the balcony railings, shouting and waving at those below, they were told, unceremoniously, to return immediately to the lower level.
The stairway ascended further up, as well as down, and David noticed the sign indicating the route to the section devoted to flight. Ignoring the instructions of his teachers, and breaking away from the descending group, David followed the signs upwards, and along a corridor, until he entered another large hall with some flying machines strung from the ceiling and others on the floor, and the usual plethora of display cases with buttons, handles, and lights.
David was as captivated by aircraft as he was by rockets. Concorde had made its first flight in March. He had wanted to be at RAF Fairford earlier in April to see Brian Trubshaw land the supersonic plane, but had to be content with watching on the television. Some of his friends had colour televisions, but David only got to see black and white at home, although he would sometimes stop and watch colour through the windows of the high street shops.
He was told that he was lucky; some people had no television at all, which sounded to David like something that was closely related to the ‘eat your dinner, there are people in the world who are starving’ argument. It would be over a year before his mother finally managed to buy a colour television, and so during the lunar landing, David had to watch the occasional colour coverage on BBC2 in black and white.
Above the floor in the museum, there were walkways to allow viewing of the exhibits displayed higher in the room. David stood upon one and stared at the Wright Brothers aeroplane – the very first to fly at Kittyhawk in America. It was a long road from Kittyhawk to Concorde. When he read the information card describing the flying machine, he was dismayed to find that it wasn’t the real thing at all, but only a replica.
David felt cheated. Years later, standing in the same building, he was to feel just as cheated looking at a copy of the Apollo Eleven lunar lander. He had known before he saw it that it wasn’t the real thing. How could it be? A large part of it was still sitting in the Sea of Tranquillity, patiently awaiting man’s return. But he still had that empty feeling of being had over.
He never fully understood the feeling of disappointment until he flew to Florida and stood in awe in the vast shadow of a horizontal Saturn V rocket. He could feel the history and the uniqueness seeping into him in a way that a mere replica never could.
When his schoolmates entered the room full of aeroplanes some forty-five minutes later, having been rounded up by their group leaders, it became apparent that he hadn’t been missed at all. The price of mediocrity.
Those that still had some foil wrapped sandwiches or sausage rolls, and packets of crisps left, ate them during the coach transfer from the museum. It seemed that only David and Mr Troughton were interested in the Planetarium, where David was taken to the stars. Everyone else would have been happy to turn a few more handles and press a few more buttons.
After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon, the Summer holidays arrived, and David could see the days stretching out into infinity before him. He was still of the age when six weeks away from school had the power to seem like six rain free and hot years. When he returned to school, it would be to the Secondary school, but in the meanwhile, David had an idea.
During the Apollo Eleven coverage, he had seen a brief clip of film on the television where a plastic bottle was launched into the air. His quest for space had to start somewhere, and a bottle rocket was as good a place as any to begin.
He knew from the film that a pump was necessary, and utilising the one from his bicycle, he created a seal between the flexible adaptor, a cork, and the bottle, which he managed to launch a disappointing five feet into the air.
Something was obviously not right, and so he took a trip to the local library to see if there were any books on building homemade rockets. A librarian, a kind woman who reminded him of his mother, found him some books full of science experiments to do at home. Although there were no instructions on how to build a bottle rocket, a miniature rocket car worked on the same principles. His problem was that the bottle and the air he was using as a propellent were too light to produce enough momentum to counteract gravity.
In his garden, he conducted further experiments with his bottle. Adding weight to the front of the bottle only highlighted that his pump was seriously underpowered, and that his ballast needed to double up as his propellent, and then decrease as the rocket gained momentum.
In the shed. He found a large heavy duty foot pump that his father had put in there ‘just in case’ he needed it again. For his new ballast and propellant, he used water, and he managed to fire the rocket thirty feet into the air, and waywardly over the neighbour’s fence. He had already outgrown the garden.
By adding a nose-cone so as to streamline the front of his rocket, and fins on the tail, he was able to solve his guidance problems. His test site was now the nearby park. Many of his old schoolmates, and his future schoolmates, played marathon games of football there (first to fifteen, at least twice a day). Once they had seen his rocket fly something approaching a hundred foot into the sky, his subsequent arrival often resulted in the temporary abandonment of the match to spectate as he achieved ever higher results.
On one occasion he purloined red and yellow food dye from the kitchen cupboard and added it to the water so as to enhance the spectacle. The result was orange speckled kids, and a slightly heavier coverage for himself. His mother was not amused.
By the end of the holidays, he had made a better release mechanism, so that he could now put more pressure into the rocket (he had blown two up on the launch pad), and added a parachute deployed from the nose-cone, so that he could now propel his rocket higher, and return it to the ground in a controlled landing.
When he arrived at secondary school, his popularity had soared, like his bottle rocket, and the science teacher, Mr Pertwee was told, ‘’Sir, Sir, Wilson knows how to make rockets!’’ David was coerced into bringing his rocket into school to demonstrate it on the school playing field. Afterwards, in the classroom, Mr Pertwee had explained the science behind it on the blackboard but few were very concerned with the mechanics, most losing interest after the demonstration.
For Christmas, David was given a working model of Apollo Eleven. Working, meant that after it had been assembled, it actually flew into the air - propelled by a multiple elastic band catapult launching device – where it separated into two parts, the Saturn five and the lunar module, both of which returned to the ground by parachute. Although it looked like an Apollo rocket, it was nowhere near as spectacular as David’s home-made rockets, nor did it reach anything like the same altitude with its inferior propulsion system.
I hope you enjoyed this preview. The rest of this story can be found at: - Fly Me To The Moon