• Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Flight

    To get Apollo 11 to the Moon, the programme bought 60% of the available microchips in the US to help make the world’s first portable, programmable digital computer; just a cubic foot in size, at a time when computers filled a room, the device was responsible for integrating navigation and vehicle orientation information and engine ignition and cut-off times to direct the command-service module accurately on its half-million-mile return journey. But in the final 15 minutes of the mission to land on the Moon, fate decreed that the lunar module would be flown down to the surface manually – 66 years after the Wright brothers became the first people to achieve powered, sustained flight – by one remarkably skilled pilot. In 1939, a Heinkel He 178 V1 became the first jet aircraft to take off, part of a secret programme for the Luftwaffe; barely five years after that jet fighters were in combat above Europe, just as a 15-year-old in the American Mid-West was learning to fly. By 1951 that man, Neil Armstrong, was just 21 and flying an

    F9F Panther jet fighter for the US Navy in the Korean War (Armstrong is piloting Panther S-116 on the left of this picture). When he was hit by anti-aircraft fire during one mission, losing part of a wing, he shepherded his aircraft back to his aircraft carrier before ejecting. In 1962, Armstrong was working for NASA and flew the rocket-powered X-15 above 200,000 feet at Mach 4. This research aircraft could manoeuvre in the atmosphere using its wings or at the airless edge of space using small hydrogen peroxide reaction ‘jets’, with the pilot manipulating a joystick and side-controller respectively; Armstrong had to use both to recover the aircraft when a new speed limiter device failed, his becoming the longest-ever flight undertaken in the type. In 1966, Armstrong was in orbit rendezvousing the two-man Gemini 8 capsule with a target vehicle when it began rolling so violently that he and his co-pilot Dave Scott were in danger of blacking out. By firing the ship’s powerful re-entry thrusters, Armstrong brought it under control – “it was my lucky day to be flying with him,” said Scott later. Two years after that, Armstrong was training to fly the lunar module by piloting the unstable, vertical take-off Lunar Landing

    Research Vehicle over California when a mechanical failure caused it to suddenly veer toward the ground; he ejected and went back to his desk without comment. And on 20 July 1969, whilst flying the lunar module from 50,000 feet above the Moon down to the surface, Armstrong realised its automatic guidance system had in fact overshot the planned touch-down zone and was also steering the craft into a dangerously rugged crater. Overriding the computer, and using the lunar module’s twin hand controllers, Armstrong selected a new landing zone, flew toward it, and brought the delicate ship carrying him and his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin down safely at 20:17 Greenwich Mean Time with about 30 seconds of fuel remaining. They had arrived.


Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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