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Moon landing's 50th anniversary: Astronaut-minister Pedro Duque reveals all
By thinkSPAIN Team Sat, Jul 13, 2019
IN JUST A week from now, the global science community will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of its greatest achievements: That of the first man to walk on the moon.
Although only six years old at the time, Spain's universities and science minister – the first astronaut to hold a key role in national government – Pedro Duque remembers it well, but could not have known that he, himself, would end up going into space twice in his adult life.
Nor could he have guessed that his own profession would make every child and adult in Spain want to bombard him with questions about what he has seen and experienced and what they know they probably never will.
In the run-up to the half-century anniversary, Spanish media channels have interviewed Pedro to try to get at those answers that still remain with us from July 20, 1969.
During the simulation ahead of the actual moon landing, the distance from the surface at which Neil Armstrong had to descend and where he would need to grip the ladder leading out of the Apollo 11 was measured exactly, Duque reveals, and worked out to be three rungs above the ground.
“Landing there with a wallop would have been disastrous,” he explains.
Was it a rushed mission? Could the moon landing have waited?
“They couldn't have waited long. They were talking about doing it before the end of the decade [of the 1960s]. There was the possibility of leaving it until the next mission, but they decided it should be the Apollo 11 since the results from the Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 were better than predicted.”
There was no improvisation?
“We could probably find details about which, perhaps, decisions had to be taken on the spot, but in general it was very precisely planned. If not, the moon landing would never have happened. At the last minute there was a computer error and they thought they'd have to abort the mission. But as it had already occurred during the simulation, they knew what to do to resolve it and were able to overcome that hurdle.”
Now, 50 years on, is there anything else we still don't know?
“Right now, more conversations are being published, along with high-resolution photographs. The recordings have cost a lot, because after a few years someone found them and decided to recycle them. They were used for other purposes and lost a lot of quality. Someone committed a big mistake.”
Have any particular anecdotes surprised you?
“I've seen a beautiful video of the Apollo 8 and of how they managed to get a photo of the Earth coming out from behind the moon. For astronauts, this is really interesting, because you know you only have about three seconds, 10, or at most 20, to take a photo of this type, as afterwards, the vessel breaks up. On the video, you can hear them shouting, 'pass me the camera!' 'It hasn't got a film in it!' 'Give me whatever you've got, but hurry!' And then the most typical footage, the one that makes us all laugh, when the Apollo 11 lands and Armstrong says: 'Tranquillity base here. The eagle has landed.' From Houston, they replied along the lines of, 'Thank goodness, because we've got a load of people here just about to turn blue.' They had landed within the last 30 seconds, and everyone was telling them to abort the mission.”
There were huge risks involved.
“They were taking a risk, but they knew how many seconds they had left. In these last 30 seconds, they still could have aborted the mission.”
President Richard Nixon had a letter already written in case a catastrophe happened.
“Yes, they do that with all missions.”
Spain played a huge role in the moon landing [read more about that here].
“Yes. The space station in Maspalomas [Gran Canaria] was linked to previous Apollo missions, and later, a station with a massive aerial was set up in Fresnedilla de la Oliva [Greater Madrid region]. Along with one in the USA and another in Australia, the one in Fresnedilla received all the signals. Instead of setting up loads of stations, they decided to mount three at exact distances apart to cover the whole thing. In Spain, a whole generation of telecommunications engineers got involved.”
It's been said that Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and all the others who stepped on the moon returned with psychological problems. Is that correct?
“One of the 12 had a revelation when he got back – he suddenly became really religious, and went too far. He wasn't as psychologically stable afterwards as the other 11, but this meant people started to generalise. People said the same had happened to them all, but everyone else returned and got on with their lives in a completely normal fashion.”
The Apollo 11 was the most famous mission, but man has walked on the moon on another five occasions. What happened to the flags?
“They recently took some satellite photos, and one of the flags has fallen down. I think five are still standing. And probably in exactly the same position. I don't know whether the sun would have caused them to fade, but if not, they'll definitely still be there.”
Why haven't we gone back there?
“Nixon slashed NASA's budget and about a fifth of it was never recovered. There wasn't enough money to do everything. They only ran missions to the Skylab, a few rockets were used for other voyages around the Earth, but they've never been able to create another Apollo. Also, the industries needed to do it don't exist any more.”
Aren't there any other technological advances that could be used instead?
“They built the space shuttle, which involved an enormous investment. It was a much more complete machine than the Apollos, but it ate up the entire budget. In fact, they had to cancel it in the end to be able to finish building the Space Station.”
On that day, July 20, 1969, you were six years old. What do you remember about it?
“I remember a black and white TV set, attached to the wall, near the ceiling. We were on holiday in a guest house.”
What impression did it have on you?
“Hundreds of millions of children were watching it, either live or on repeat, depending upon when our bedtime was. There was only one TV channel back then and it was an event being broadcast all over the world.”
Did it influence your decision to become an astronaut?
“On that day, every child on the planet wanted to become an astronaut. That's undeniable.”
What made you reply to Iker Casillas [ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper, currently playing for FC Oporto] when he wrote on Twitter that he was sceptical over whether man had really landed on the moon?
“My first thought was just not to say anything. But then, I thought, this is a high-profile personality with a huge following, and there are some things you can't let pass by. You can't let conspiracy theories expand and for people to think all of science is a hoax, because this can eventually have far-reaching and harmful consequences for the public.”
What's the role of women in the 'space race'?
“Quite a few years would have to go by before the first woman went up in space, but we've recently found out that a group of women have been chosen to go out there. Practically all the high-intelligence computer operators and mathematicians which we were able to trust implicitly because they had calculated the orbits were female. They had a major role, but many years went past before they were able to take on positions of leadership and responsibility.”
There's no sexism in space?
“They avoid it as much as possible. They even make space suits in smaller sizes to fit women. Everything they do tries to ensure opportunities are as equal as possible.”
NASA cancelled an all-female space mission in March because there were no space suits to fit women.
“It wasn't exactly like that. There were suits in the required sizes, but one of the women who went up decided hers was too big and she wanted a smaller one for the next mission. There were smaller ones, but there wasn't time to prepare them properly. It wasn't because of the sex of the astronaut, but because of a change of space suit, and the mission did not go ahead, because it would have been delayed.”
What's the most annoying or uncomfortable part about being in space?
“Being isolated from everything 'normal' – from your family, your friends, your local bar, the places you go walking. Earth has lots of lovely things about it.”
Does it make you claustrophobic?
“Living for six months in a relatively small space isn't for everyone. But the technology is more than developed enough to allow you to live there more or less indefinitely.”
And what's the most rewarding part about being in space?
“The sense of privilege in using such advanced technology that so very few people will get to use. And having a moment's peace and quiet to be able to look out of the window and see the Earth, the edge of its atmosphere, its night, day, thunderstorms...you could spend hours just looking at it and it would still be amazing.”
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