16 Jul 19
The Scottish Sun
AS James Burke led the commentary on the Moon landing 50 years ago this week, he kept a secret from the 22million people watching on TV.
The BBC’s bespectacled science expert had just taken the biggest gamble of his career.
Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission
His show had ended after the landing craft, the Eagle, touched down that evening, and they were not expecting a Moon walk until the next day.
But while the station was showing regular programmes — and due to shut down at midnight — James suspected Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were going to walk earlier — and persuaded his bosses to do the unheard of — and go back on air until after midnight.
In an exclusive interview with The Sun, 82-year-old James reveals that if it all went wrong, his boss was going to fire him the next morning.
The BBC had spent months and a small fortune planning its coverage.
People gather late at night in London’s Trafalgar Square on July 20, 1969 to witness the first Moon landing on a giant TV screen
In 1969, most homes had black and white TVs, with colour a rarity.
Across the country, people sat in their front rooms and crowded outside shops that sold TVs to see Neil Armstrong become the first human to set foot on the Moon.
All evening, the BBC had been relaying live pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin in the landed Eagle.
The pair were scheduled to go to sleep on board before walking on the Moon the next morning, July 21.
James says: “I was still listening to the astronauts because that was my job as Chief Geek, and I heard them talking. They were supposed to be going to sleep.
‘PEOPLE COULDN’T CREDIT IT’
“You power yourselves down and you rig hammocks, and they weren’t doing any of that. They were doing what you do when you are getting ready to get out.
“I went up to the control gallery and said, ‘Look, I think they are going to get out early’.”
It is hard to imagine now, but BBC TV had never in its history broadcast after midnight.
In a terrifying phone call from the studio, his team had to beg the controller of the BBC for permission to stay on air through the night for the first time. He agreed — and James was proved right.
James says: “The reply came back, ‘All right. We will stay up all night — and if they don’t get out you are all fired’. So we went back on the air and we went off the air next day. It was the most momentous journey man had made since we walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago.
Broadcaster and science historian James Burke speaks exclusively to The Sun about the biggest gamble of his career
“I remember at the time a lot of people couldn’t credit that it was happening. They just couldn’t believe we were actually going to go to that light up in the sky.
“You have to remember, back then we still had soot-blackened cities and steam trains.
“Many homes didn’t have an inside toilet or a bathroom, most families didn’t have a car. Yet here we were going to the Moon.
“The astronauts, with all their gleaming technology, were like people from a different planet. Watching them was like leaping into the future for a few hours.”
In the BBC studios, James and amateur astronomer Patrick Moore, one of the world’s leading experts on the Moon, described what was going on 240,000 miles away. Around the globe, 600million were watching events unfold.
James says: “I remember sitting in the studio and saying to Patrick, ‘I can’t believe they are actually going to do it’.
“And he said, ‘Nor can I’ and this was the man who had spent his entire life studying the Moon.”
Patrick Moore and James Burke in a replica Moon Rover in 1971
[boxout headline=”Patrick map key to race” intro=”MONOCLE-wearing astronomer Patrick Moore played a big part in the Moon landing.”]His hand-drawn maps of the lunar surface were so accurate that the Soviets and the Americans used them in the space race.
Just six months after becoming the presenter of the BBC’s The Sky At Night in April 1957, the Space Age began when the USSR launched their Sputnik Earth-orbiting satellite.
Two years later, the Russians tracked Patrick down to his home in Selsey, West Sussex, and asked to see his maps.
Using these detailed drawings, they were able to identify features in photos taken by the Lunik 3 spacecraft.
It was another five years before Nasa requested the maps from Patrick, which aided preparations for the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.
Patricia Davies, now 96, travelled to the US with Patrick to interview the three Apollo 11 astronauts.
She says: “Patrick was not only a great Moon mapper but he was also the only person ever to have met the first man to fly, Orville Wright, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.”[/boxout]
During the broadcast, the first sight of the Moon’s surface almost left James speechless.
He says: “The inevitable voice in my ear was saying, ‘Tell us what we are looking at’. I had to say, ‘I have no idea, nobody has ever seen it before’.”
As Armstrong stepped on to the Moon in the early hours of the morning, viewers were still glued to TV sets wherever they could find one.
James says: “I remember at the time there were pictures of people standing in high streets watching it in shop windows at five minutes to four in the morning.”
It was only after Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins, who stayed in orbit above the Moon in the command module Columbia, returned to Earth that it was revealed just how close the mission came to disaster.
‘I STILL GET GOOSEBUMPS’
James says: “It was even more hairy than we thought. After 240,000 miles in three days, Armstrong landed with just 19 seconds of fuel left.
“Now that is what you call nerves of steel. It still makes me get goosebumps.”
In a famous speech seven years earlier, President John Kennedy had signalled America’s intent to land on the Moon.
But James also reveals that sending a man there was actually the idea of Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson.
He says: “I talked to Johnson’s Chef de Cabinet after Johnson was dead, and he said Kennedy didn’t know where the moon was. He just wanted an idea to save himself after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, when the US failed to support rebels in the communist invasion of Cuba.
“Kennedy was suffering badly from that and what he wanted was a propaganda victory. So Johnson said, ‘Let’s go to the Moon’.”
Johnson insisted Mission Control be built at Houston, in his home state of Texas, although it was 1,000 miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. James says: “I asked the Chef de Cabinet, ‘Why was Johnson so successful? Why did he get things to happen all the time?’
“And he said, ‘Johnson knew where every body was buried. If he asked you a favour, you did it’.”
James, who is still involved in science projects, believes claims that technology benefited from the Moon landings are exaggerated.
He says: “Scientifically, going to the Moon told us almost nothing technologically. It wasn’t new. All the bits had been made before.
“It was a wonderful adventure, sure, but at the time the science community was not backing the Moon thing at all.
[boxout headline=”Crystal clear memory” intro=”HUNDREDS of people have shared their memories of the Moon landing with UK Research And Innovation, which launches a digital scrapbook on Friday. Here are some that will be displayed at the National Space Centre in Leicester:”]“WE must leave now” I said to my pregnant wife after her waters broke. Instead of responding, she carefully positioned herself on the chair, her eyes glued to the TV.
She said she was not going to the hospital until Neil Armstrong had set foot on the Moon.
MICHAEL ROSNER, East Sussex
JUST after the Moon landing, my parents made me a fancy dress costume for my school fete and I got first place. I watched the landings late into the night with my late father on our old TV. It’s a great memory.
STEPHEN DOBSON, West Yorkshire
I WAS seven and watched the Moon landing at school on a black and white TV that my head teacher had kindly brought in from his home.
When Neil and Buzz started doing bouncing steps, my giddy excitement turned to worry. I thought they were going to bounce off the Moon.
PAM ARMSTRONG, Greater Manchester
I REMEMBER the exhilaration of the moment, Patrick Moore and James Burke leading us through events.
An exhilaration shared with bleary- eyed friends later that morning in school assembly. The night’s events instilled in me a passion for science.
NIGEL SHADBOLT, Principal of Jesus College, Oxford
MY 62 years have been so influenced by the Space Race. I wrote to Patrick Moore many times, he never failed to respond to my enthusiasm. My passion resulted in me following a career in engineering, specifically in remote sensing. For a young lad from Newcastle, this was not the usual prospect.
LANCE THOMPSON, Fife
[article-rail-section title=”most read in uk news” posts_category=”141″ posts_number=”6″ query_type=”popular” /]
“It cost a ton of money which a lot of scientists thought could be better spent doing other things. What Nasa did give the world was what is called zero-defect manufacture. There were six-and-a-half-million parts on the spacecraft, made by 2,500 different companies, and they each fitted exactly.
“If Nasa changed the world it was managing production of parts. I asked one of the astronauts, ‘What is it like, lying on your back at the top of the rocket just before it launches?’
“And he said, ‘I tell you what, you can’t stop thinking that every one of those six-and-a-half-million parts was put there by the guy who put in the lowest tender’.”
James Burke: Our Man On The Moon is on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Saturday at 8pm.
Buzz Aldrin stands by a scientific experiment on the lunar surface
Buzz Aldrin is photographed by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon
TV shows man walking on the Moon for the first time in the history of humankind
Pope Paul VI sits before a television in his summer villa to watch the lunar landing mission
People watch the launch of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket on a TV set placed outside the United States Information Service HQ on Via Veneto in Rome, Italy, on July 16, 1969
Rain-soaked New Yorkers cheer as they see Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon
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