The sad death of Neil Armstrong today is a salutary reminder that soon there will be no living person on this planet who has walked on the surface of another world. A select band of heroes, one of the most exclusive clubs ever to have existed, will be gone - with no prospect of anyone filling their boots for a long time to come. It's a sobering thought, and it got me reflecting on what Neil and the other Apollo astronauts have meant to me over the course of my life.
First, you have to understand that I have an appalling memory. I mean appalling: bad enough for me to sometimes wonder whether I have early-onset Alzheimer's. So if I remember something from my childhood, you can be sure that it made a damned big impression on me. As you can probably guess, my earliest memory, out of the very few fragments that I've retained from my early years, is of Neil setting foot on the Moon. I don't recall whether we were at our neighbours' house to watch footage on the TV or they were at ours, but we were definitely together. I was too young to appreciate the true significance of what was happening, of course, but I do recall a palpable sense of excitement.
This was the beginning of a childhood fascination with space exploration. The single memory I have of infant school was of being asked to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up and then draw pictures of our future selves. Needless to say, I wrote that I wanted to be an astronaut. My words and my picture of me in a spacesuit were put into a booklet with a red cover, which was then cut out into the shape of a rocket.
Another memory I have, probably dating back to the end of Apollo programme, was of cutting out coupons from the back of cereal packets to send off for a book about the Moon and the Apollo missions. I remember being fascinated by photographs in the book showing the damage done to the Apollo 13 command module. A couple of years after that, I recall being taken to a lecture on astrophotography by my uncle Harry, who worked for Kodak - providers of the film that the astronauts used in their Hasselblad cameras. Harry gave me a set of glossy prints, a selection of the best photos taken by Neil and the others who walked on the lunar surface.
This passion for space (admittedly in conjunction with an insatiable curiosity about the quantum world) ultimately led me to study Physics at university. And when I found myself staying in academia to embark on a PhD, I suppose it was inevitable that my research should involve the study of objects in the solar system - of the Moon itself but also of other worlds, other surfaces yet to bear a human footprint.
|Me at the business end of a|
Saturn V rocket in 1988
Eventually, I morphed from a physicist studying planetary surfaces into a computer scientist (sort of), but that fascination with solar system exploration and the exploits of astronauts has never left me and it continues to have an emotional impact. I get goosebumps when seeing the latest images from spacecraft visiting other worlds. I felt that rush of joy from JPL scientists when Curiosity touched down successfully. And to this day, I can't watch Ron Howard's excellent Apollo 13 without getting a lump in my throat at the end.
So thank you, Neil and thanks to your Apollo comrades, too. Thank you for inspiring me and a whole generation of young people who were growing up in the late 60s and early 70s. Thank you for giving me a passion for science and sense of direction in my nascent academic career. I wouldn't be where I am today without you.