One by one, like mighty oak trees falling in a forest, the Apollo Moon-walkers are leaving us.

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On January 7th - yesterday, as I write this - astronaut John Young passed away at the age of 87. Many Cockermouth Post readers won’t have heard of him, I realise; he was nowhere near as famous as other Apollo astronauts, like second man on the Moon Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and of course, Neil Armstrong, the first person in the history of mankind to set foot on another world. But he was NASA’s longest-serving and most accomplished space traveller. In fact, NASA’s astronauts had a lovely saying: “When kids grow up, they want to be astronauts. When astronauts grow up, they want to be John Young...”

Today the words ‘hero’ and ‘legend’ are bandied about so freely and so frequently, they simply don’t mean anything. A footballer can be hailed a ‘hero’ for scoring a match- winning goal. An actor is lauded as a ‘legend’ simply for living long enough to make enough films to earn them a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award. But John Young was a hero and a legend, back in an age when those words meant something. After fighting in the Korean War, he became a test pilot, based at the same flight centre featured in the ‘Top Gun’ film, where he flew too many aircraft and broke too many records to list here (but remember the old Phantom jets? He was a test pilot on those...) After being selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1962, he went on to take part in three major space exploration programs. He flew a two-man Gemini capsule in 1963 and again in 1966. Three years later, he flew around the Moon on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for Armstrong and Aldrin's Apollo 11 landing two months later. He walked on the Moon himself in 1972, on the Apollo 16 mission, driving over 16 miles in the lunar

In April 1981, John Young commanded the sleek white space shuttle orbiter Columbia on the first ever space shuttle mission. I remember running home from Cockermouth Grammar School on the scheduled day of the launch and bursting through the door with, I thought, only minutes to spare, only to hear that the launch had been delayed. When Columbia did blast-off, several days later, I watched it with my heart thudding like a drum, almost too worried to look; NASA had never put a crew on the first launch of a new spacecraft before, so it was a spectacular but hugely risky test flight. John Young was used to those and lapped it up and relished every moment of it, bringing Columbia home safely after 36 orbits of the Earth. His sixth and final trip into space, in 1983, was also onboard Columbia. After that, he retired from flying into space but remained heavily involved with NASA and was a huge advocate for space exploration until the day he died.

This incredible man’s passing means there are now only five of the Apollo Moon-walkers left alive. They too will fall, one by one, until there are none-left. Of course, that will be a terribly sad day for all of us who are ‘into’ space but it will genuinely mark the end of an era, an era when there were people walking on the Earth who had also walked on another world. On that day, the Apollo landings on the Moon really will pass into history, becoming historical events to be studied in school lessons like the Second World War, the Battle of Hastings or the construction of Stonehenge.

Does this matter? I think it does. Today there are a growing number of people who screech on Social Media that the Apollo missions never happened, that they were all faked. Incredibly, some of them even shouted ‘FAKE!’ and ‘NASA LIARS!’ in the comments beneath NASA’s obituary of Young on Twitter and Facebook. I fear that once all the Moon- walkers have gone, the numbers of these people will increase, and their poisonous ignorance will spread. More and more kids will come up against it online and some will believe it. I hope everyone reading this realises how dangerous that would be.

So, next time you see the Moon in the sky, take a moment to think about the Apollo missions and the brave astronauts who went on them. It will be a long, long time before we see anything like those mighty machines, or their crews again.

Stuart Atkinson Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal

ISSUE 422 | 25 JANUARY 2018 | 16



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