The Moon: from myth to landings and beyond

Tuesday 16th July, 2019


Our speaker for the evening was Pete Williamson who came to talk to us about "The Moon: from myth to landings and beyond". He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and is a consultant to the Faulkes Educational Telescope Network and the BBC as well finding the time to run an internet-based radio station "Astro Radio".

He began his talk by saying that he had managed to watch the Apollo 11 Moon landing by secretly feeding his pocket money into the back of the family television. His parents had gone to bed and he had crept back up to watch the event, which occurred in the early morning hours for UK viewers. He then explained that he would briefly outline the Apollo programme but rather than cover much of what is already been well publicised about it he would be talking about some of the lesser known details that he had gathered from his research and in talking to astronauts and others actually involved with the mission.

For example, the Apollo 11 astronauts had to fill in a customs declaration and expenses claim. The customs form shows the departure point being the "MOON" and arriving at Honolulu with the cargo being stated as "MOON ROCK AND MOON DUST SAMPLES". They also declared that they were not suffering from any sort of illness or airsickness and had not had any accidents. However, in the space where it asks about any other condition which may lead to the spread of disease the words "TO BE DETERMINED" are typed.

Mr Williamson explained that the crew of Apollo 11 had to stay in quarantine for 21 days to make sure they would not pass on anything. Accompanying them in a converted Airstream trailer were a doctor to look after their health and an engineer to run the life support and ventilation systems. This mandatory quarantine carried on for the Apollo 12 and 14 missions until scientists had examined the lunar samples closely enough to conclude that there was nothing harmful to humans in the rocks or soil. Apollo 13 astronauts did not have to go through the quarantine process as they never landed on the lunar surface.

He then continued by saying that both the American and Russian astronauts (and even their support staff) have developed a number of rituals over the years. On the day of a NASA launch the astronauts have a traditional breakfast of eggs and steak, as a tribute to astronaut Alan Shepard, who ate this breakfast before his Mercury Freedom 7 flight in 1961. Then before the launch the commander keeps playing cards with the technical crew until he/she loses.

It is considered unlucky for a crew preparing to go to space in a Russian Soyuz rocket to actually watch it being taken by train to the launchpad, so they do not attend the event but instead have a haircut, a champagne breakfast and autograph their hotel room door. Coins are placed on the train tracks to be flattened into good-luck charms and horseshoes are hung in the buses that take them to their rocket. The night before the launch the cosmonauts also attend a mandatory showing of the cult Russian film "White Sun of the Desert".


This article was written for the club news column of the Stratford Herald. The actual lecture explained the subject at a deeper level.