Article by Professor Michael Burton, Director of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
July 20, 2019 marks 50 years from the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, humanity’s first foot steps on another world. As much an awe inspiring feat then as it remains today. Indeed, despite the revolution in technology since 1969, such that the Apollo 11 astronauts would be lost in our modern world had they returned from a 50 year voyage of discovery, we are actually less capable today of sending “a man to the Moon and returning him safely” – in President Kennedy’s immortal words that launched the Apollo programme – than we were in the 60’s at the dawn of the space age.
While it was politics and national pride that launched the Apollo programme, and brought it to an abrupt end once it had achieved its primary objective – the Moon landing itself – this was an event that brought humanity together. One that all on Planet Earth could feel a collective part of when gazing up towards the ball which lights our night sky and forms an integral part of our collective consciousness, knowing that there was a person walking on its surface. Possibly the only event in human history that this claim can be made for?
While I have watched the recording of the descent of the Eagle from the Command Module to the lunar surface countless times, it still remains spine tingling. Listening in to the communications between astronauts and mission control, as unknown fault lights appear, Armstrong navigating past boulders and a crater in the landing field, all while the fuel meter falls perilously close to empty, before touchdown. With mission control “turning blue” from collectively holding their breath in those final seconds.
In Armagh Planetarium’s Dome we can now experience this sequence in an immersive environment, watching the new full dome planetarium show produced by the National Space Centre telling the story of Apollo – “CapCom Go!“. It’s truly gripping, even though we all know the outcome! CapCom Go forms the centre piece of our own celebrations to remember Apollo in Armagh.
50 years ago Armagh Planetarium was just 1 year old. That most famous of astronomers, Patrick Moore had been its first Director. He had been responsible for obtaining Armagh’s first “star projector” and the commissioning of the Planetarium with it. Moore was an authority on the Moon. His “Guide to the Moon” written in 1953 providing a fascinating insight into what we then thought we knew about the Moon. Both for that which proved to be correct, and for that which turned out to be completely wrong!. His map of the Moon was the last of the great hand drawn maps, built up from the painstaking observations made by many leading observers, himself included, all carefully charting the topography of the Moon by watching through their telescopes the changing shadows of the mountains across the surface at lunar sunrise and sunset. Moore’s map hangs on the wall of the Planetarium today.
Moore had actually moved on from Armagh by the time of the Moon landing, the demands of running the monthly “Sky at Night” BBC TV show from London proving too demanding to also remain running the Planetarium. However, for the infant Planetarium, reporting on the Moon landings and explaining what it was all about, became our first great mission. Armagh Planetarium earned its moniker then as “the Place for Space”. Our reputation today, as the longest running Planetarium in the whole of the UK and Ireland, dates back to the role we played then in telling the public about the Moon and the story of the Apollo programme.
So today, 50 years on from Neil Armstrong’s “One Giant Leap”, we are proud to be able to tell the story of Apollo once again, to explain it now with the benefit of immersive technologies that gives one the opportunity to experience the events in ways that weren’t even dreamt about it 1969, as well as to tell the wider story of astronomy, space and our wonder about the cosmos beyond our planet.
Hence our “One Giant Leap” festival over this summer of 2019, commencing with “Museum of the Moon on the Mall” on the weekend of July 20-21, and a summer full of activities in the Planetarium and our Astropark. The full programme of activities is to be found on our new website – armagh.space – but here I’ll just highlight some of the new experiences.
The Museum of the Moon is a 7m diameter globe that will be suspended above the north end of the Mall (weather permitting!). It accurately depicting the surface of the Moon. A full programme of activities, on the Mall and in the Planetarium, accompanies it.
We also have a special exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the International Astronomical Union (or IAU) – the leading scientific body for world astronomy, which just so happens to be celebrating its centenary this year. “Above and Beyond” celebrates the achievements in astronomy over the past century – the science, the technology and the impact on our culture. Several contributions from Ireland are prominent! The exhibition is spread across five venue in Armagh as well to accommodate it, grouped decade-by-decade. While the start and finish is in the Armagh Planetarium, you will also want to visit the Armagh County Museum, the Market Place Theatre, the Robinson Library and Number 5, Vicars Hill, to see the full exhibition. It runs from July 20th until July 31st. [The Apollo 11 mission is shown in the module displayed in the Robinson Library.]
A new feature for the Planetarium and Astropark is an augmented reality (AR) exhibition. Experience Apollo, the Moon, as well as the planets, stars and galaxies along the Solar System walkway and up the Hill of Infinity through a new Augmented Reality experience. This is still an emerging technology, and this is our first trial activity in this arena, one we hope to develop further in the future. The AR exhibition only works in the Planetarium and Astropark – the features are geo-located there – so you get to experience them when you are in the right location on your walk around our grounds. A full scale Saturn 5 rocket, ready for blast off, is at the Hypercube at the bottom of the Hill of Infinity, and you can get to launch it from the Stone Circle at the top of the hill!