Sunday 13 December 2015


A while back I wrote about the Harry Potter aspects of the moon-landings: everyone over a certain age knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the face of the moon. To the nearest whole number nobody among 100 people could name the last man on the moon.  It was Eugene "Gene" Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission which touched down on 11th December 1972. You can see him here [R] throwing up dust as he does wheelies about the lunar surface in the Lunar Rover. There were many aspects of the mission that exemplified the throw-away society that was, and is, riding our planet to a dusty and depleted desert. It took 50 tons of Saturn V rocket and fuel to deliver 5 tons of material to the moon.  At each stage in the process, bits were discarded so that the moon is now littered with 180 tons of space trash.  It's a bit like the approaches to Mt Everest, or the Camino de Santiago: someone else will pick up my discarded packaging.

The Lunar Rover program was budgetted at $38,000,000, but forced by politicians to have a declared budget of $17,000,000. Cost over-runs led to the final cost of deploying 3 throw-away vehicles to the moon being . . . $38,000,000.  Obviously, they had to be engineered under the constraint of a declared max-weight and still be functional to transport the men and material and bring back lunar rock samples to the landing module. Cernan brushed against the fender of one of the wheels while getting it ready for use . . . and ripped off a chunk of it. The first trip was thus carried out in a fog of moon-dust. Something similar had occurred on the Apollo 16 mission, so a roll of duct-tape was available on-board. They also had some stiffish paper lunar surface maps.  Guided by bodgers and engineers back at mission control, Cernan was able to construct a replacement fender-extension to keep the dust down on the second day's excursion. I like that story very much: using 50c's worth duct-tape and a bit of cardboard to fix a $10m luxury people-and-clutter carrier. Except that the duct tape was probably sold to NASA a Space Duct Tape - a snip at $5,000.  It's like that in science: the glassware you buy in a hardware store is sold with a 10x markup through a medical supply catalogue.  It's like that with weddings: book a table for a Works' Outing and it will cost €X, book it for John and Mary's wedding and the cost is €3X and the quality and menu choice is worse.

Cernan and his "Lunar Module Pilot" Harrison H Schmidt, launched back towards home on the 13th December 1972.  Schmidt, a geologist, was the only scientist to go to the moon and back - the rest were pilots. Apollo XVIII had already been cancelled by the money-people. Nobody has been back for 43 years. In 1994, Cernan became Rád Bieleho dvojkríža a Grand Officer of the Order of the White Double Cross [see R] having been bestowed this honour by the Republic of Slovakia "for the outstanding spread of good reputation of Slovakia abroad" ie because of his Slovak ancestry and out-of-this-world achievements. Slovaks live in Slovenská republika so you can see why the rest of us confuse it with Slovenia Republika Slovenija an entirely different place with a less interesting flag. But that's politics, here we are removing our Dan Dare space-helmets to Gene Cernan - no better man!

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