Space race that took men to the moon

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Fifty years ago, the world was transfixed by a single event – the Apollo 11 moon landing. Former Oamaru man Christopher Macann relives the excitement.

It was a time in history ripped from the future and inserted into the seventh decade of the 20th century – my first decade on the planet.

It was the race to the moon.

My introduction to the space race and man’s dream of landing on the moon came when my father, along with other members of the Oamaru Jaycees, put a new piece of playground equipment in the Oamaru Public Gardens.

It was a rocket. It was bright red and its name was “Flash”. It commemorated the dawn of a new era.

Flash is still there and now in bright orange looks more like a carrot. It’s pretty basic as play equipment goes but there’s still plenty of imaginings to be had.

It was the last days of 1966 and the final Gemini mission had been completed. Project Gemini and its predecessor Project Mercury were the missions which supported the crazy notion that man could get to the moon. Already 30 men and one woman had been to space.

The world was about to hear a new word: Apollo.

At the Oamaru North School Christmas break-up that year, I won the bike decorating competition with my trike which Dad and his mates had decorated as a space capsule.

To me it looked like the real thing. It was a marvellous creation and I was the captain in my own capsule. I felt very important. I wanted to be an astronaut, never mind the claustrophobia, the huge amount of maths I would need, and the thousands of people on the ground helping me make it happen.

One evening my parents took me outside to watch a spacecraft fly over. I don’t remember which mission it was and I don’t remember seeing any moving lights in the sky. I was most disappointed not to see a mighty rocket flying overhead with a flaming tail looking much the same as the one which had blasted-off from the launchpad.

I didn’t know back then what that mission was all about. All I needed to know was that it was carrying men into space.

Watching the “live” images from the moon of Neil Armstrong’s first steps was exciting. I didn’t need to know the realities of the way the images actually got to New Zealand screens several hours later. To me it was happening now – and I was in the front row.

The evening my family watched the moon landing together, my mother finished knitting me a warm woollen jersey which has forever been known as the “moon landing jersey”. I kept it for a lot longer than it was useful. It was a part of history. My aunty in America sent me a first day cover of the moon landing stamps issue. I still have it.

I still delve into my book Secrets of the Sky which retains pride of place on my bookshelf. It was my first “big person’s” book, given as my birthday present that year. As well as the history of the moon-race it also features other cool space stuff including planet Pluto which popularly has lost its planetary status. Growing up with the space race as well as with planet Pluto, I’m not about to unfriend it now.

The first moon landing was a mighty achievement, but even more mighty was what was to happen nine months later: the safe return of the crippled Apollo 13 via a slingshot journey around the dark side of the moon. Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind was indeed that, but for me that rescue mission remains humankind’s greatest achievement. I can’t predict another such Earth-stopping moment.

I enjoyed watching the first cars driving on the moon during the last three Apollo missions. My interest was reinvigorated nine years later with the first piloted landing of a craft from space – the space shuttle Colombia

Years later, I visited Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; the headquarters of those missions. The building and control room was still there, but it was all empty desks and just a shell. That was where it all happened. Gone were the control and communications systems in huge consoles that looked so sophisticated back then.

There’s more computing power in a child’s toy now than there was available for the whole space programme back then.

The giant step occurred before I was 10 and the whole moon programme was done-and-dusted before I was a teenager.

Twelve men had walked on the moon.

★ Christopher Macann is a writer based in Christchurch