• Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Chance

    One way of looking at the chance of success when travelling into space was set out by Werner von Braun, who noted with pride that with a design tolerance of 99.999% perfection, fewer than two dozen parts might not be. Another is John Glenn’s apocryphal answer to the question of how he felt before lift-off: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” During the Apollo 11 mission failure could have occurred at any one of a number of obvious stress points, including ignition of each of the three stages of the Saturn 5 stack. Indeed on the Apollo 6 mission two of the five engines on stage two malfunctioned and were shut down, the reduced thrust affecting the whole mission. Re-ignition of stage three to push the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and toward the moon was also cancelled. This worked on Apollo 11 but many more potential issues awaited, from the complex geometry of separating the command-service module from stage three and extracting the lunar lander to the two stages of that vessel working, and that was before its redocking with the command-service module engine orbiting the moon and ignition of its engine to come home. Most of those attached to the mission seriously considered the overall objective had only a fifty-fifty chance of success, though failure could take many forms short of fatalities. Death though had come to the Apollo program already, and not just with the loss of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the launchpad fire that ravaged the Apollo 1 command module during a test in early 1967.

    Clifton C. Williams Jr. would have been on Apollo 12 but was killed when the T-38 jet fighter he was piloting – ironic\ally on a flight to see his dying father – crashed later in 1967; Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was also killed when flying as the rear seater in an F-104 the same year. Two Gemini astronauts who would undoubtedly have been on Apollo missions – Elliott See and Charles Bassett – were killed when the two-seater jet they were flying crashed in 1966. Another jet crash claimed Theodore Freeman in 1964. Had the Apollo 11 moon walkers not been able to return to the command-service module – seen as the most likely catastrophe – President Nixon would have read to the world a speech that remained secret for 30 years. Written by William Safire, it is eloquent and spare.

    “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

    Three days to go.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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