“Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the Moon, but to look back at our home, the Earth.” – Al Worden Command Module Pilot, Apollo 15 1971
It’s late evening and I’m five years old, huddled in a green tartan woollen dressing gown over turquoise nylon pyjamas, the kind that when you put them on in the dark literally light up with static electricity. Sitting, with the only light coming from just the glow of a gas fire and our tiny black and white television, I get as close as I dare to the fire oblivious to the flammable properties of nylon. The heat comes from both the flames as well as a long wide grill, into which, just weeks before, I’d thrown my mum’s car keys to avoid my first day at school, and after finally owning up and a 45-minute procedure involving a wire coat hanger, my fate was sealed and school an inevitability.
It was always cold in our house. In fact, there won’t be central heating for another three decades and even though there was no inside toilet, hot water, bathroom or even a telephone, I never look back and think we were poor or hard done by. My childhood for the most part was a very happy one. I suppose we were on the bread-line, my Dad working as a fabricator welder in the quarry just up the road earning only £50 a month to feed, heat and clothe a family of five; not Monty Python ‘rolled up in a newspaper in the gutter‘, but nevertheless not exactly luxury.
Noel Booth was born in 1929, one of sixteen children and left school at 14 to work as a farm labourer, working the land with horses. Disillusioned by the ill treatment from his employers, combined with overhearing a conversation between his elder brothers about their father’s terminal illness, he ran away from home. Lying about his age, he joined The Royal Navy in 1946, just after the end of the second world war and a full year before he was eligible. Despite his poor schooling he was an intelligent and articulate man with an enquiring mind and quickly found himself in one of the most complex and challenging posts for a newly able seaman, the ship’s radar. Several postings followed culminating in him joining the crew of one of the Royal Navy’s flagship vessels, the Illustrious class aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious. I think it may have been here that his love of ships, planes and all things technical and mechanical really began. Sadly, his Naval career came to an abrupt end just two years later due to poor health.
I think to some extent this explains the reason we are sitting in front of the television, late at night and way, way past my bedtime. Not able to quench his own thirst for adventure, he lived it like many millions of others, through the sounds and pictures about to appear from this small wood veneered box in the corner of our living- room. Most importantly, it was his way of making sure I see the wider world and open my mind to the incredible possibilities and opportunities available to me, that weren’t accessible to him. Whilst my mum and two elder sisters slept upstairs, Dad sat next to me, glued to the television. It’s a school day tomorrow and I’m feeling a mixture confusion and excitement at being allowed to stay up so late as I fight off the urge to sleep.
I watch through heavy eyelids the fuzzy and often static picture, and as Dad spins the set top box aerial there’s a real sense of tension and anticipation that something big is about to happen. Something really big, in fact something huge. His enthusiasm is contagious, and we both sit wide eyed peering through the tiny, cathode ray tube window at the early evening, Florida sunshine and the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, some 4,000 miles away, a gigantic rocket, gleaming white, standing impossibly tall at 363ft (or 36 stories’ high) and weighing, 2.8 million kilogrammes or as NASA used to say, roughly about the same weight as four hundred elephants, not specifying if Indian or African. The Apollo Saturn Five was and still is the largest and most powerful machine ever built. To put this colossus on launchpad 39A has cost a staggering $25.8 billion (or adjusted for inflation to today’s money $288.1 billion). At its height, Nasa estimates that the Apollo Space Program employed a total of 400,000 people across the United States. This number includes everyone from astronauts to mission controllers, contractors to caterers, engineers, scientists, nurses, doctors, mathematicians and programmers. It seems a long, long way away from our house in the Derbyshire countryside and at five years old I know nothing of the cost and effort and why should I, I am only interested in this giant rocket, it’s three brave astronauts and its destination the moon!
After what feels like an age for an impatient child, the speaker finally crackles to life and we hear the legendary voice of countdown communicator Jack King… “Engines armed, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, all engines running, lines commit, lift off, we have lift off at 9:34 a.m. Eastern time. The tower is clear…”
The Saturn V rocket delivers 7.7 million pounds of thrust, the equivalent to 160,000,000 horsepower and at three miles away, the spectators see the blast first and several seconds later flinch with amazement, as the vibration and shock-waves pummel their chests and the soles of their feet, as the intense staccato blasts their eardrums. For those who were lucky enough to see it, the launch was something never to be forgotten. For us watching on our tiny television, the rocket seems to just hang in the air until it slowly lifts off and the screen goes completely white. Apollo 15 isn’t the first Saturn V to leave the Earth, there have been nine before it, both unmanned and manned, most notably Apollo 11, the first to put a human being on the moon and after this there will be two more missions before the moon program ends.
The bond between a father and son can take many forms, the most obvious and maybe predictable being football, cricket or motor racing. For my Dad and I it was something so much more magnificent and something I’ve carried with me long after my father’s death in 1998, the love and passion for space exploration. This father and son ritual began in 1969 when I was only three years old, as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and although I can’t remember it, our whole family along with 530 million viewers worldwide, tuned into what was arguably the most significant historical achievement of the twentieth century and maybe beyond. Depending on the day and time of a launch, sometimes it would be Dad and I and other times I’d be at school. But thankfully the headmaster of our tiny primary school also understood the importance of the space program and the hugely positive effect it had upon our young minds. If we can put a man on the moon, then we can do literally anything! Lessens would stop and the school television (there was only one), which was colour, would be wheeled out for both the launch and return to Earth, or as it was known back then, ‘splashdown’. The whole school filling a single classroom to witness history.
It’s always baffled me that after reaching and setting foot on the moon, people lost interest, most significantly the American taxpayer and apart from the near disaster of Apollo 13, arguably one of NASA’s finest moments, budgets were cut along with later missions. Our tiny microcosm of life inside school seemed to echo this and as the missions continued I found myself campaigning the headmaster to keep the dream alive and would submit flight plans and as many reasons I could find for him to keep wheeling out the TV and for us to witness, what we now know, for so many would be a once in a lifetime experience.One of these launches would hold a deep significance, that even this child’s wild and active imagination could ever think possible. That, nearly half a century later he would meet one of the three men who sat on top of a Saturn V rocket to fly to the moon and back all those years ago; a literal and metaphorical pinnacle of human achievement.To me Apollo isn’t one God, but twenty-four. The twenty-four human beings who travelled farther and faster than anyone alive to reach what for many back then was the ultimate goal, the moon. The irony of Apollo is that whilst the goal may have been the moon it was the impact of seeing the earth so tiny and fragile in the vast nothingness of space that had the biggest effect upon them.”
A big thank you to Astronaut Al Worden and Vix Southgate of the British Interplanetary Society.