Thursday 29 September 2016

Working it out: Renowned space icons truly awesome

John Masterson

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

American aviator Charles Lindbergh in the cockpit of his biplane at Kenley, prior to his departure for Paris. Photo by Davis/Getty Images)
American aviator Charles Lindbergh in the cockpit of his biplane at Kenley, prior to his departure for Paris. Photo by Davis/Getty Images)

There are a string of words that are overused and I find it difficult to speak with someone who uses them. Those who work with me know I have banned the word 'renowned' in my presence, or in anything I might have to read. I am not too keen on 'special' as most of the things I see described as 'special' are not very special and often the approbation is being delivered by someone who wouldn't know 'special' if it bit them. As for 'iconic', spare me. But top of my list is 'awesome'.

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I rented a bog standard Renault Scenic recently and the on-board computer was little short of amazing. My passenger was an engineer and in no time I was being told of Moore's Law, which is not really a law but a fairly useful prediction of the speed of technological development. We rapidly progressed from the superb car computer to laptops and desktops. Before long he was reminiscing about when computers filled whole rooms.

The progress of the last few generations is undoubtedly awesome, but I didn't feel any awe. I was just grateful I lived in a time when the relentless progress scientists are making results in the possibility of a better world every day. Every time I listen to an engineer or a scientist, I wish we trained more of them. I look forward to Waterford and Carlow ITs getting their acts together for a much-needed South Eastern Technological University.

This Christmas will be the 47th anniversary of something which I still find awesome. In December 1968, Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth, to go to the moon, and orbit it, and return. On board were Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, the first humans to see an Earthrise.

The astronauts were visited by Charles Lindbergh the day before they flew. He told them he used a piece of string on a globe to calculate the fuel for his transatlantic flight. They sat on top of a 363-foot rocket, and fully fuelled the Saturn V weighed 2.8 million kilos. Lindbergh watched the launch.

It took them three days to get to the moon. On nearing their destination, a rocket burn of precisely four minutes and 13 seconds was required to place them in orbit. Too short and into space, perhaps forever; too long and a crash into the moon. This had to be done on the far side of the moon and out of contact with Earth. The theory was that they could use the gravitational pull of the moon to enter orbit. Everyone got their sums right and they re-emerged into view at the precise second predicted. Your phone has vastly more computer power than that which Apollo 8 relied on.

They orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours. Borman slept through two orbits and woke when he heard the others making mistakes due to tiredness. He then ordered them to sleep for two orbits, which they did. Then they all came home. Yes. That is awesome.

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