PTT, Dave Unwin
Boldly going from the past to the future and beyond
Having accepted an invitation to the world premiere of the film Armstrong in central London I thought I’d make a day of it and visit the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich first. If you’ve never been, both are well-worth a visitparticularly as the museum is hosting a special Moon exhibition until January next year. However, we all know how much the sciences of aeronautics and astronautics owe to all things nautical, and bearing in mind my eventual destination I was particularly interested in the exploration and navigation sections of the museum.
Greenwich really has played a tremendous role in the history of navigation. After all the historic Prime Meridian of the World, Longitude 0° and the International Reference Meridian (which passes 102.5m to the east of the Prime Meridian) are here. The famous bright red Time Ball atop Flamsteed House still drops at 1300 every day, just as it has done since 1833, when every ship’s captain anchored in the Thames set their chronometers by it, and fine examples of early sextants and time pieces can be seen in the museum. The synergy between the Prime Meridian, the chronometers created by John Harrison and the sextants built by John Hadley are possibly the primary reason why Britannia ruled the waves for so long, and why famed explorers such as the immortal Captain James Cook achieved so much.
Latitude has always been reasonably easy to ascertain, but longitude is much trickier without a sextant and the ability to know the correct time at longitude 0°. Know your ‘lat and long’, and you know where you are−and even a student pilot can confirm it’s much easier to get to where you’re going if you know where you are! Incidentally, and it may seem incredible, but even early Boeing 747s had a periscopic sextant, with which the hard-working navigator was expected to shoot a reasonably accurate ‘three
cornered hat’. A task that can’t have been easy with a groundspeed in excess of 700mph! And talking about knowing where you’re going and knowing where you are, during the film Neil Armstrong says that one advantage he and his crew had over another famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, was that at least they knew where they were going. Columbus didn’t know where he was going, and even after he’d arrived still didn’t know where he was!
As for the movie, your Editor reviewed it recently and I can only echo his sentiments. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and not just the space stuff. There’s some lovely footage of an Aeronca Champ (my first taildragger) shooting touch ’n’ goes at a bucolic grass strip in the American
The links between Greenwich and the space programme are irrefutable
Midwest, some wonderfully sharp film of carrier-based Grumman F9F-2 Panthers during the Korean War (Armstrong flew several combat missions while still a midshipman, and even ejected from his damaged Panther over South Korea) and some amazing footage of the incredible North American X-15. Armstrong flew this Mach 6-plus capable rocket plane seven times, and it’s a machine that has always fascinated me. Even today, if engineers need solid, empirical data on hypersonic flight they dust off those old X-15 files. X-15 stuff is still the best there is.
At the end of the movie (which received a well-deserved ovation) panel-show host, comedian and self-confessed space nut Dara Ó Briain hosted a Q & A session with the director, an astronaut, a scientist and one of Armstrong’s sons, Mark. The question I was going to ask Mark (but someone beat me to it) was “What was your dad’s favourite aircraft?” Mark replied that although Neil loved flying the X-15 (who wouldn’t−it could exceed 4,500mph and had an absolute ceiling in excess of 350,000ft) his all-time favourite was the Grumman Bearcat, an aircraft which is widely viewed as possibly the ultimate piston-powered fighter. However, Mark also revealed that his father loved soaring flight, and was a keen glider pilot. Somehow, this didn’t surprise me−and riding home on the train that night the film gave me plenty to ponder.
Regular readers may share my fascination at the astonishing amount of progress made during the first seventy years of powered flight, and my disappointment at the lack of advancement recently. July saw the (muted) celebration of another aeronautical milestone, the 110th anniversary of Louis Blériot flying his monoplane across the English Channel. I imagine that the Blériot XI probably cruised at around 25-30mph, yet only seventy years later Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins exceeded 25,000mph on their way to the Moon. Incredible. And if we’d continued to progress at the same rate, we should be cruising towards Mars at at least 250,000mph, if not more. But we’re not, are we?
One of the great things about living in the countryside as I do is that, unlike most people in the UK, I can still enjoy a night sky unsullied by light pollution. Having arrived home from the premiere at around midnight I was spending a peaceful few minutes studying the stars when an extraordinarily bright object hove into view. It could only be the International Space Station, and as I watched it pass overhead it suddenly occurred to me that not only are the links between Greenwich and the space programme irrefutable, they still exist today. The clock on the ISS is set to UTC (previously known as Greenwich Mean Time) and both Cook’s ship HMS Resolution and the Apollo XI Command Module Columbia carried sextants!