Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Monday 21st July 1969, 2:56am and the five people sleeping soundly in the Caravan at Glengarriff Caravan Park were my parents, my younger brother, younger sister and me, the nineteen year old. We were on a family holiday. Poignantly, and for no reason other than life simply moving on, I do believe that it was the last family holiday in which we all participated.
My recollection of that week is one of wet mornings (what’s new I hear you ask), and a troublesome car. My uncle Michael had lent my father his Ford Cortina for the trip. Although my father had several cars over the years, I can’t recall if he owned one at that particular time. If he did then his judgement must have been that it would not be reliable enough to trust on the long journeys which our planned holiday was likely to involve. Cars were somewhat less reliable in those days.
Anyway, our illusion that we were doing mighty by having the luxury of the Cortina for the week was shattered on the first misty morning when no amount of key turning would engender a response from an exhausted battery. When push came to shove you could take your pick. It was either push or shove, in copious amounts thank you very much, which had to be applied before the blue flyer (as we affectionately named the car) would jerk into life and grant us the possibility of touring for that day.
Holiday or no holiday, Monday 21st July 1969 was no ordinary day. It was a momentous day, during the early hours of which mankind made history in a spectacular feat of exploration, which up to that point in time had been but a dream.
Throughout my late teenage years I had been enthralled by and fully absorbed with, the Apollo Moon Landing Programme. I had followed each of the missions with the same level of engagement as if lost among the pages of a compelling page turning novel. I was in awe of the talented people at NASA who moved the programme forward, step by careful step, as prelude to the events of 2:56am on 21st July 1969 at which point “one giant leap” was taken for mankind, when the sole of Astronaut: Niall Armstrong boot touched the surface of the Moon. During each and every mission up to Apollo 11, I had been glued to our black and white television at home, soaking in every blurry image which was transmitted.
We had no access to a television in the Caravan, such a portable facility did not exist in those days, so the first thing on my mind when I got up on the morning of the 21st was where, and how quickly could I get my hands on a newspaper? I was certainly not best pleased when push and shove had to be applied to the blue flyer, before the newspaper mission could be carried out. At least the Apollo 11 technology seemed to have been a bit more reliable.
Anyway, the blue flyer eventually kicked into life and got us to nearby Newsagents where we staked our claim to the morning broadsheet and in addition, to some lime marmalade and peanut butter, the later items being firsts for the nineteen year old.
It is not manners to read during a meal, our parents would have told us on many an occasion. Well let me tell you, during breakfast on 21st July 1969, there was no way that this kid was not going to read about the successful moon landing while munching his thickly lime marmalaided brown bread. Given the historic nature of things, the rules were bent more than a little.
Fast forward forty three years to 6th August 2012 at 5:17am (GMT), and another epic marker is laid down, on mankind’s long journey to the stars, with the successful autonomous landing of the Curiosity Robotic Rover (MSL), an average distance of 141,548,358 miles away, on the planet Mars. What an achievement?
For me, contrast could not have been greater with that misty black and white Apollo 11 day back in 1969. Here I was this morning, with a comfortable ringside seat from 5am onward, watching proceedings at NASA’s JPL mission control, in real time and in crystal clear vivid colour via the internet on my small laptop computer. How very far we have travelled technologically since then, I thought.
The seven thousand people in the US and around the world, who over recent time have been involved in bringing the Curiosity MSL mission to this morning’s spectacular safe beginning, with the new technology soft landing on the surface of the red planet, deserve immense congratulation. Their combined vision, teamwork and sterling problem solving capabilities have moved humankind’s greater star travel project forward yet one more important notch. In so doing, they have provided priceless inspiration for thousands of young men and women who may now as a result, feel compelled to find their way into the space sciences and who may in time themselves actualise the science fiction concepts of today.
It all began when our early ancestors gazed at the twinkling silver points of light, in night skies over their primitive landscapes and simply wondered. But when human ingenuity evolved telescopes, which allowed us to see our companion worlds up close, there was really no looking back.
Sir William Rowan Hamilton, one of Ireland’s greatest mathematicians and scientists, spent his entire working life at Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory. He is famous for his discovery, in 1843 of quaternions (a number system that extends the complex numbers and applies them to mechanics in three-dimensional space). Hamilton and his like, laid much of the mathematical ground work which would eventually feed into space science and serve to guide us to the enlightened place we are in today, on our conscious journey to the stars.
Dunsink Observatory is one of the oldest scientific institutions in Ireland. Built between 1783 and 1785 using a bequest to Trinity College from Provost Andrews, it was originally the observatory attached to Trinity College Dublin and also the residence of the Andrews’ Professor of Astronomy (who also bore the honorary title of Royal Astronomer of Ireland until 1922). The observatory is situated on the highest point to the north-west of Dublin; about 8km from the city center and is in close proximity the Dublin’s famous landmark, the Phoenix Park.
Was any present day Irish Scientist involved with the Curiosity (MSL) Project? Indeed there was. Dr. Robert Lillis, a Dublin-born academic who received his primary theoretical physics degree in Trinity College was involved. Dr.Lillis worked on the radiation assessment detector instrument on the probe. He is also working on the next mission to Mars called: MAVEN which is due for launch in twenty six months’ time.
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