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Moonstruck? Not quite!

Publishing Date : 08 January, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

I woke this morning to the news that China had successfully landed a lunar rover on the far side of the moon.  According to a news report from Beijing, a Chinese spacecraft has made the first-ever landing on the unexplored far side of the moon as it transmitted a never-before-seen image of the virgin surface.

Lunar explorer Chang'e-4 touched down at 10.26am local time (3.26am our time), state media reported, and took the 'close range' photograph in a global first. While stationed on the moon, the Chang'e-4 will attempt to recce the famous Von Karman crater in the Aitken basin, the largest impact crater in the entire solar system at eight miles (13 km) deep and 1,600 miles (2,500 km) in diameter.   It will also be tasked with carrying out mineral and radiation tests, presenting scientists with the first-ever chance to examine materials from the far side of the moon.

The far side of the moon - colloquially known as the dark side - actually gets as much light as the near side but always faces away from Earth.  This relatively unexplored region is mountainous and rugged, making a successful landing much harder to achieve.   It appears to take on a reddish hue in some of the images released by China, seemingly an effect of the lights used by the probe.

The pioneering landing demonstrates China's growing ambitions to rival the US as a space power, with Beijing hoping to send another probe next year.  Beijing is pouring billions into the military-run programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022, and of eventually sending humans to the moon.  The Chang'e-4 lunar probe mission - named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology - launched last December from the southwestern Xichang launch centre. 

It is the second Chinese probe to land on the moon, following the Yutu rover mission in 2013.   China aims to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030 and is planning to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.
Now I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, much less  a Chinese New Year parade, but on July 20th of this year of our lord, 2019, the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the first time a man walked on the moon.  That’s half a century, ago, since when in my opinion, nothing man has achieved in its space programmes has anywhere near rivalled the excitement and achievement of that moment.

It came about only  a little over eight years since the flights of first manned space flights of Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin and American Astronaut Alan Shepard,  in the early 1960s, shortly after which US President Kennedy's declared that the USA would put a man on the moon within 10 years ‘Not because it is easy but because it is hard’.  Kennedy threw down the gauntlet to the US space agency NASA, gave them all the money they needed to realise his dream and, posthumously, they did not disappoint, managing it in well under the stipulated 10 years.

And thus it was on July 20th 1969, the world watched in anticipation and wonder as NASA broadcast live footage of Neil Armstrong taking his historic ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, as he stepped off the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon, the first human being ever to set foot on another planet.  The black and white images were grainy but given the technology of the time, the footage was remarkable.  We watched in awe and wonder, in a pre-satellite television age, knowing we were seeing history in the making, alive to the moment and its moment, its significance in the history of human endeavour.

To quote from the contemporary NASA account

“After one and a half orbits, Apollo 11 gets a "go" for what mission controllers call "Translunar Injection" - in other words, it's time to head for the moon. Three days later the crew is in lunar orbit. A day after that, Armstrong and Aldrin climb into the lunar module Eagle and begin the descent, while Collins orbits in the command module Columbia Collins later writes that Eagle is "the weirdest looking contraption I have ever seen in the sky," but it will prove its worth.

When it comes time to set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong improvises, manually piloting the ship past an area littered with boulders.

During the final seconds of descent, Eagle's computer is sounding alarms.

It turns out to be a simple case of the computer trying to do too many things at once, but as Aldrin will later point out, "unfortunately it came up when we did not want to be trying to solve these particular problems."

When the lunar module lands at 4:18 p.m EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. Armstrong radios "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Mission control erupts in celebration as the tension breaks, and a controller tells the crew "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again."

Armstrong will later confirm that landing was his biggest concern, saying "the unknowns were rampant," and "there were just a thousand things to worry about."

At 10:56 p.m. EDT Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." 

Aldrin joins him shortly, and offers a simple but powerful description of the lunar surface: "magnificent desolation."

They explore the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs.

They leave behind an American flag, a patch honouring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque on one of Eagle's legs. It reads, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

It was an amazing feat, not just for its time but for all time.  Human beings – earthlings, if you like -, walking on the moon.  Today you can talk Mars Rover, Mir, Space Shuttle, International Space Station but I guarantee that none could ever generate the thrill of  the Apollo 11 mission and the sight of those astronauts, bouncing around in their Michelin-man style white space suits, in zero gravity on the surface of the self-same moon we could see by looking out of the window at the very moment of the occasion.
So sorry, China.  Not a day late and a dollar short but 50 years and a few billion yen and we’re not impressed!



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