Sand and Stars

Three Heroes and Their Craters

Image credit NASA

19 Sep 2016

When it comes to the Moon’s craters, no three do it for me more than the only craters awarded to living people: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, lying there in the Sea of Tranquility close to where the Eagle landed.

As a kid in the backwaters of the then Rhodesia (it became Zimbabwe in 1980), I lay on the grass on July 20th 1969, looking at the moon, and it changed my life. Three intrepid explorers and inspirational heroes were there… two walking on the moon, one circling above.  

Indeed, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Micheal Collins are my dearest heroes, and I don’t know who I would be without them. Not the person I am, that’s for sure.

To the ancient Greeks a hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond the normal scope of human experience that he left an immortal memory behind him when he died – such as Heracles, Achilles, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts – and they were thus raised to a position as more than human but less than a god.

Image credit NASA
Image credit NASA

Greek heroes were not necessarily good (Achilles desecrated the body of Hector), but they were always extraordinary; to be a hero was to expand people’s sense of what was possible for a human being.

We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose as kids, and our ideals – things like integrity, courage, and honour – largely define us. The heroes we choose also helps define the limits of our aspirations.

A kid who chooses Buzz Aldrin as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human ideals involve – and what to aspire to – than someone who chooses a brain-dead reality TV star as a hero. (Alas for these kids.)

Image credit NASA
Image credit NASA

The Apollo 11 adventure was along classic heroic proportions – the three astronauts clambered aboard their massive Saturn V rocket and got blasted off on a journey of extraordinary peril – but the truly extraordinary part of the whole epic adventure is that they made it to the moon and back using paper maps of the stars and the moon, carrying slide rules to do calculations, and using a sextant.

The technology employed in space travel today – the super computers, laser guidance systems, unbelievable hardware and software – wasn’t even possible to imagine back in the days of the Apollo programme. (The Apollo Guidance Computer had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz.)

Can you see NASA today giving three astronauts a paper star chart, a slide rule and what turned out to be a somewhat second-rate optical instrument to find their way to the moon and back?

Apollo 11 star chart. Image credit NASA
Apollo 11 star chart. Image credit NASA

Here is the NASA transcript of Michael Collins using the sextant; he is looking at the star Menkent (Theta Centauri).

Collins: “Okay, again, looking through the telescope. Okay, proceed to Menkent. There she goes. Menkent. Menkent. God, what a star.”

Buzz Aldrin cuts in: “Nobody in their right —”

Collins, speaking at the same time: “Menkent’s good.”

Aldrin again: “Nobody in their right mind would pick that one.” A moment later, “Hey, I sure wish you’d get out that — that star chart.”

Armstrong says: “Can’t see a thing, huh?”

Collins can see, but not too well. They plot Menkent, Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii) – at least Collins is pretty sure it’s Nunki (!) – and Atria (Alpha Trianguli Australis) for good measure.

Collins ends by saying: “God, I’ll tell you, the visibility through that telescope is a big disappointment.”

It was absolutely magical sitting out in the immensity of this magnificent desert, frosted with silvery moonlight, looking at those three little craters honouring such deeply personal heroes.

The craters Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong. The red ‘X’ marks the location of the Apollo 11 landing. Image credit: NASA/LRO.