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40 years on...........

FV Primula Crew 1969, originally uploaded by ccgd.

A couple of months ago I was in Washington DC, on business, and I took the chance to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, to complete - in a very small way - a personal, almost childhood pilgrimage. I went to see, and touch if I could, something called Columbia.

It is right in front of you as you come through the door of the Museum. Under the Spirit of St Louis, and the Wright Flyer there are three space craft in a line. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

No ordinary Apollo - in fact it is Columbia - the Apollo 11 Command Module.

I stood wanting to be enthralled, but then was almost immediately, embarrassingly disappointed. The capsule was tiny, it was tatty, and it was encased in Perspex. I tried to get close to get a photo, but it seemed that a fine spring Washington morning had attracted most the population of the Eastern USA to the Smithsonian. I wanted to be alone with it, to study it in every detail, the heat shield, the thrusters, the scarred triangular windows. Instead it was surrounded by brash ten year old boys, their bored wee sisters and their Dads who were not even born when Columbia orbited the moon, and Eagle - the LEM - landed on the Sea of Tranquillity on July the 20th 1969. I wandered away a little bit deflated, wondering if it was me or the jet lag.

You see forty years ago I was consumed by space, in the obsessive, almost autistic way that a ten year old boy can be. I lived, breathed and slept the Apollo programme. I had the books, the Airfix models, the newspaper articles and cuttings, with bright almost garish colour photos of Cape Kennedy, of Saturn 5's, of the surface of the moon. (These were given to me by elderly neighbours, for ours was a house that did not take a regular paper, unless you counted the rolled up copies of the John O'Groats Journal and Caithness Courier sent on by Auntie Lena, that arrived a few weeks old, and only after they had been read cover to cover by Lena, Uncle Roddie, and my Grandfather - Gaga - who all lived at Beach Road, Thurso).

And it was in 4 Beach Road that we all sat and watched what many TV and print observers at that time were calling the biggest thing in Human History - a landing on the moon. As a family - the Davidsons - we were in the process of moving from Glasgow to Inverness, via the Maternal Family - Mackays - home, in Caithness. We had moved up to Thurso in the June, indeed gone to School there for a month, whilst a new family house was being sought in Inverness.

So for the summer of 1969 my space obsession moved to Caithness, and for the next four months Kai and I shared a bed in the corner of my grandfathers room, waking each morning to the sounds of the BBC news at 7:00 from his bedside radio. In my half awake, half sleeping state I remember thinking how little news about Apollo was on the radio, compared to what seemed wall to wall coverage on the TV. My abiding memory is of listening to endless discussions about the implications of General Franco's choice of successor, now King Carlos of Spain.

Spending the summer living in my Grandfathers house (in name only - he was looked after by Lena and Roddie) was not a new experience for us. We had lived their for the summer of 1966, when moving from Shetland to Glasgow, and longish visits seemed to me quite common. So I had already a circle of friends, lads my own age whose interests alternated daily between that very Highland interest of fishing in Scrabster Harbour, and building model space rockets, powered by a dangerous little device called the Jetex rocket motor - a sort of miniature bomb, with solid fuel pellets that made the most smoke possible in 3 seconds of combustion.

Living permanently in a summer uniform of T-Shirt, Kaki shorts and leather sandals, I was rarely at home, except for meals and when there was a space programme on the 405 line TV that sat directly in front of my Grandfathers chair. He rarely left it, as he was in the final 18 months of his life, and a lifetime of smoking Woodbine cigarettes had finally caught up with him. So he sat in his chair, with an oxygen bottle at his side, a packet of the strongest mints available to mankind in his pocket, and a tin of snuff on the mantelpiece. He sent me out to buy the snuff and mints, giving me and Kai a ten bob note, and winking at us "neever tae mind the change". Occasionally we would head down to the Harbour, early in the morning, to check up on the landings from his boats. The photo above shows him, centre back, on a summer morning in the late 60's.

But mainly I sat at his feet and watched TV with him, and only as an adult realised that he been born before the Wright Brothers took that first flight, and served in the RAF during WW1.

In the end though it all came down to a warm summer evening, a Sunday I think, three days after watching the Saturn Five blast of from Florida. I'd been in the house all day, watching the wall to wall coverage, drinking what seemed endless supplies if orange squash in strange glasses from Gaga's pub, the Marine. We all sat there never imaging that anything could go wrong and listening to the terse exchanges between Aldrin, Armstrong and Houston. The implications of those computer alarms, and the low fuel warnings I only understood in retrospect, as an adult.

But I knew - space geek that I was - that they had landed a full second before everyone else in that Thurso front room. I knew what it meant when Aldrin said "contact light on" as we watched moon dust get blown on the B&W TV screens in that triangular LEM window that we - and 10's of millions of other people - were watching. Then "Engine off".

Yet I still think that Armstrong's sentence "Tranquillity base here - the Eagle has landed" more powerful and important than his more famous first words on stepping of the LEM. Armstrong thinks so as well.

But it was Houston's reaction "Thanks Apollo 11, there's a bunch of guys turning blue here - we are breathing again" and the muffled cheering in the background that brought home to me the enormity of the undertaking - yes even at ten.

Then off to bed early, and up very early to watch the moon walk.

But it’s the landing that still gets me, especially as I grew older and understood the meanings of all those alarm calls, and Armstrong taking over the controls of the LEM to fly them over that boulder field, and the enormity of that low fuel warnings. That bit, to me is the wonder and success of Apollo 11.

All this was brought home to me back in the Smithsonian an hour after my disappointment at the front door. I'd discovered the huge Apollo section at the back of the museum, including an original - never used - LEM, with a full AV booth next door which played the Apollo 11 landing video on an 8 minute loop. I stood and listened to the whole thing twice, with a couple of about my own age, and at the end of the second loop our eyes met and we smiled and we reminisced about where we were and what we were doing on that July night in 1969.

Forty years ago.

I'd not been round the whole museum, but I knew that now was the time to leave, to think and reflect.

Mission accomplished.

Great post. I love the photo as well. It's amazing how differently things look to us, years after our first experience of something. Even when I go back to my first school, I don't know the girl who walked those halls.

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