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The day a new era dawned for mankind [...]; 'It was a moment you never forget'.

Byline: Tom Ross

WHILE the first mission to the moon was hurtling skywards, Colin Pillinger was a young astrophysicist who had recently completed his studies in Wales.

Four decades later, the Swansea University graduate is helping Nasa plan future manned lunar missions.

And even back in 1969, the 26-year-old had more reason to watch the launch of Apollo 11 than the rest of the billions of people keeping track of the mission.

Having recently finished his postgraduate studies in Wales, Mr Pillinger had been hired to analyse samples of lunar rock brought back from the moon's surface.

So as he watched the rocket shooting to the stars, the young scientist was already eagerly awaiting a parcel from Nasa.

Years later, the Bristol-born 66-year-old, best known for his work on the Beagle 2 Mars Lander project, still remembers his sense of excitement as he watched events unfold.

"It was one of those moments you never forget," he said. "It was like the Kennedy assassination. You will always remember where you were."

To this day, Mr Pillinger remains enthusiastic about the original moon mission.

"The samples are the greatest legacy," he said. "They have already taught us so much.

"We knew what we were going to do with them in 1969 but as technology moves on, you can learn more and do different tests. We can learn even more as more becomes possible."

"When it finally happened and after the TV pictures were transmitted, a lot of people went outside to look at the moon itself."

On July 21, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin became the first men to tread on ex-traterrestriasoil.

The moment came just 66 years after the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane and captured the public imagination like no other scientific feat before or since.

It was also a fitting epitaph for President John FKennedy, who had set Nasa the goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s Until the moon landing, the Soviet Union were winning the "Space Race" hands down - scoring a series of firsts by launching the original satellite Sputnik and then sending dog Laika into space, blazing a trail for Gagarin, who breached the final frontier in 1961. Further successes followed as Valentina Tereshkova became the first female astronaut in 1963 and Alexei Leonov pioneered the space-walk in 1965.

The ace up Nasa's sleeve was Wernher von Braun, the German scientist-turned-US citizen who cut his rocket-making teeth with the Nazi V1 and V2 bombs that rained destruction on London during World War II.

Von Braun's team built the giant 363ft Saturn V rockets which launched the astronauts on the 240,000-mile journey to the moon.

Mission Control in Houston was staffed by young men - average age 26 - led by flight director Gene Kranz, 36. In all, 400,000 people worked on the Apollo project.

From the Cape Kennedy launch on July 16, to splashdown in the Pacific on July 24, the world was captivated by what President Nixon would describe as "the greatest week since creation". Long before the term Wag had been coined, the astronauts' wives were subjected to relentless media scrutiny.

The excitement reached fever-pitch late on the evening of July 20 as the lunar module Eagle undocked from the command module Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin began a nerve-wracking descent.

With the fuel tank almost empty, Armstrong took manual control to avoid a crater before resting the craft with seconds to spare on the designated landing site, the Sea of Tranquillity.

When Armstrong announced "the Eagle has landed", he was informed that the men in Houston had been "turning blue" with anxiety.

Armstrong and Aldrin donned their spacesuits to prepare for their historic moonwalk. It was prime time in the US on July 20 (the middle of the night of July 21 UK time) when Armstrong made his famous "one small step for man - one giant leap for mankind" speech.

The two men took photos, collected rock samples and planted a US flag. Aldrin described a "magnificent desolation" and Armstrong spoke of a "stark beauty", as they tried to convey their first impressions of the lunar surface.

All too soon, they had to begin their return journey. After linking up with Columbia again, Apollo 11 fell to earth, splashing down in the Pacific to be met by President Nixon on board the recovery vessel, the USS Hornet.

The astronauts endured three weeks in quarantine and were feted at home before embarking on a world tour that saw them meet leaders as diverse as the Queen, the Shah of Iran, General Franco and Emperor Hirohito.

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MOON FACTS Apollo 11' s 3.5 mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Cape Kennedy (Cape Canaveral) launchpad 39A took seven hours. More than a million spectators watched the lift-off - the closest three miles from the launchpad. Armstrong's wife and children observed from a boat in the Banana river.

The lunar module was named the Eagle and the command module Columbia after a ban on frivolous names. For Apollo 10, the command module had been Charlie Brown and the lunar module Snoopy. Michael Collins helped design the mission badge featuring an eagle landing on a cratered Moon with an olive branch in its talons and the Earth in the background.

The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis) landing site was named by priest-astronomer Giovanni Riccioli in the 17th century.

At Mission Control in Houston, flight director Gene Kranz was easily recognisable to TV viewers in stylish white waistcoats made by his wife.

The only person in Houston who talked to the astronauts was the duty CapCom (Capsule Communicator). Charles Duke filled the role when the Eagle landed but his shift soon ended. His fellow astronaut Bruce McCandless was CapCom for "the giant leap".

The "CapCom only" rule was relaxed to allow President Nixon to speak to Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon.

A speech had been prepared for Nixon to read in the event of the astronauts being stranded on the Moon. It would have been delivered before they died. The first man to see the astronauts back on Earth was US Navy frogman Clancy Hatleberg who transferred the spacemen from Apollo 11 to a raft, ready for helicopter evacuation to the USS Hornet. Strange but true: Buzz Aldrin's mother's maiden name was Moon.


STARS AND STRIPES: Buzz Aldrin plants the US flag on lunar soil after he and Neil Armstrong landed there in 1969 MAN IN THE MOON: Professor Colin Pillinger
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 17, 2009
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