Space Science and Technology - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Mawson Lord Mawson Crossbench 7:45 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I thank all the parties in this House for helping me to secure this important debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rees, for all his advice and support.

On 16 July 1969 at 8.32 am EST, the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center set off for the moon. I suspect that many of us in this Chamber are old enough to remember exactly where we were and what we were doing at that moment as the world held its breath, came together and watched in awe these amazing events in black and white footage on our television screens. I can certainly remember where I was and the sense of wonder it sparked in me; I was 15 years old. It was only eight years before this that President Kennedy had set NASA this mission and seven months since NASA made a bold decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to the moon on the first manned flight, on a massive Saturn V rocket.

On that fine morning in 1969, 7.5 million pounds of thrust propelled them into space and into history. After one and a half orbits of the earth, Apollo 11 headed for the moon. Three days later, the crew is in lunar orbit and, one day later, Armstrong and Aldrin climb into the lunar module “Eagle” and begin their descent, while Collins orbits in the command module. Collins wrote later that the “Eagle”,

“is the weirdest looking contraption I have ever seen in the sky”.

When the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. We all know the rest.

When you dig into the details of this amazing human feat of risk-taking and daring, you discover some interesting facts. It was costing a massive 4% of USA GDP at the peak; it took more than 400,000 people working together as a team to get those two brave men alive there and back from the moon. During the final seconds of descent, “Eagle’s” computer is sounding alarms. It turned out to be a simple case of the computer trying to do too many things at once—sound familiar? But as Aldrin would later point out:

“unfortunately it came up when we did not want to be trying to solve these particular problems”.

Armstrong later confirmed that landing this craft was his biggest concern, saying that,

“the unknowns were rampant … there were just a thousand things to worry about”.

The excellent BBC World Service podcast, “13 Minutes to the Moon”, gives the real human detail of how this was achieved, just how extraordinary and hard the task was, how hard people worked, the sense of dedication, teamwork and commitment, and how it caught the imagination of the entire world. There are apparently all sorts of small but crucial matters that you have to remember as an astronaut if you want to get back alive. Small things quickly become very big matters. For example, of all the things that Buzz Aldrin had to remember, one important detail was to ensure he did not close the door of the “Eagle” when he left the craft to step down on to the moon’s surface. There was apparently no outside door handle on the craft if he shut it—just think about that.

At a time when we are in danger, as a country, of talking ourselves to death, drowning in thousands of words and coming apart as a nation, this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is a breath of fresh air. It takes place this Saturday 20 July and reminds us of an amazing practical human achievement that required massive collaboration across wide groups of people with many different skills, experiences and values, to achieve a practical outcome that the whole world could celebrate. The focus was not on words but on a practical task: doing something together. This extraordinary human event carried with it important opportunities for our economy and for every nation on earth, particularly for our children and the future of this planet.

Just before Easter, I was approached by the Aldrin Family Foundation in the US and the Hackney artist, Helen Marshall, whom I know. They were working with the Kennedy Space Center and asked whether my colleagues and I would be interested in working with them and the People’s Moon project in the US to help celebrate and share this extraordinary human achievement with this generation in the UK. We jumped at it. I declare my interest. The Peoples Moon is a global project to mark, in a unique and creative way, the 50th anniversary of landing the first humans onto the lunar surface. It is producing giant photo and video mosaics that will appear at multiple locations around the world starting now, this July.

A team of us working together have now secured, this Saturday, the anniversary of the moon landing, giant screens in Times Square, New York, in Piccadilly Circus, London, and in Singapore, which will show, at the exact time 50 years ago, the landing of the lunar module. A giant projection of Neil Armstrong’s first boot print on the moon will be projected on to the floor in Piccadilly Circus, so that people can literally stand in his footstep. These celebrations will coincide with other events across America, the highlight being at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Our own Professor Brian Cox will be taking part in this gala. The permanent home for the People’s Moon exhibit will be at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida: future generations will be able to click on individual pictures and learn something about the thousands of individuals that took part and what their aspirational “giant leap” was in 2019.

To make this large moon mosaic, we are asking people, particularly young people, to download the People’s Moon app and send us individual pictures of themselves with a statement of their “giant leap”, describing their aspiration in a few words. The Apollo programme was accomplished by the efforts of more than 400,000 people coming together and achieving an impossible dream. This project is encouraging this generation to come together and inspire the world to believe in them and dream the impossible again. This giant art installation, a picture of the moon made up of 10,000 people’s pictures and their “giant leaps”, will stay as a reminder of our time, 50 years on, of what we have learned from these extraordinary events in the history of humankind and the impact they have had upon our lives and our economy.

Just over a week ago, Professor Brian Cox and I ran our eighth science summer school in a school in what was, just over a decade ago, a failing housing estate and failing school in Tower Hamlets. This year, 60% of our children in this school have gone on to Russell group universities, many to read science and engineering. Our means of turning around what was a failing school was, first, to get good leadership and build a focused team of staff; then to inspire the children and expose them to the lives and journeys of this country’s top scientists and engineers; then to connect this yearly inspirational event to the ongoing science and engineering curriculum in the school; and, finally, to make sure they meet, hear and work with people who are actually running some of this country’s top science and engineering businesses. Join the dots, create an aspirational culture and believe in these children: they have many talents. We know; we have the data to prove it.

Just over a week ago, these children from east London were joined by 60 children from Rotherham and Skelmersdale as Brian and I took the science summer school into the north of England. They heard from Abigail Hutty, who is working on the ExoMars Rover, co-ordinating the design team who are building this vehicle, and from Andrew Smyth, an aerospace engineer at Rolls-Royce and finalist in “The Great British Bake Off”, who shared with us the scientific links between the heat shield on the space shuttle and the make-up of meringues and arctic rolls—amazing. There is much debate about the direct benefits of the massive investment in the Apollo programme. Perhaps, though, that misses the point: the sense of self-belief, the entrepreneurial, can-do attitude that it engendered could be seen as its major successes. The Apollo programme gave a major push to computer technologies; it purchased 70% of the entire production of early integrated circuits and more or less invented software engineering, so perhaps it is no surprise that the USA is pre-eminent in these spheres today.

The “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8, showing the earth rising beyond the moon, was taken the first time humankind left earth’s orbit. For the first time, we saw how small and precious our planet really is. For the first time, we could see the globe in the context of the cosmos. This was, arguably, the major driver of the nascent environment movement, and in the long term it may be that this was by far the programme’s greatest impact. Pope Francis, in his speech to the Council of Europe in November 2014, challenged us all:

“Where is your vigour? Where is that idealism which inspired and ennobled your history? Where is your spirit of curiosity and enterprise?”

The clues may be in this incredible story of human endeavour, self-belief and risk taking.