Thursday, April 20, 2006


I've never been star struck, in the sense of wanting to hang out with with today's celebrities, but since the age of five, when Armstong's moon landing brought my corner of North West London (my world at the time) to an eerily silent halt, and we watched the fuzzy images beamed back from deep space confiming the Eagle had landed, I've definitely been moon-struck.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Wembley meant that there were fairly few heroes around in my life. We had punk and Thatcher and George Best getting pissed and looking fat playing for Fulham. Somewhere off in the distance, Nixon was disgraced, and a bridge on Park Lane, just before Wembley High Street proclaimed Radio Caroline on one side, and US Hands Off Vietnam on the other.

Unlike my father - whose own father served as a gunnery instructor through WW2 - I didn't have men in uniform close by to look up to. I marvelled at Concorde, but the Chuck Yaegers and RAF equivalents were a generation before me. Everest had been conquered and technology was taking over as the new frontier.

Yet I could look at the 12 men who set foot on the moon between '69 and '72, the six others who floated alone in the Command Modules and those who'd been in orbit as a Mercury, Gemini or early Apollo crew member - and now manned the desks in Houston - as real heroes.

I used to gaze at the moon at night during those missions, hoping to see some sign of life, some sign of the action, some connection. Down in my small bedroom, Action Man would be dressed in a crackling silver space-suit - definitely more Mercury than Apollo - and I even had a second-hand Action Man space capsule - again harking back to the Mercury one-man shows. But then, when I was about eight, it all abruptly ended. Skylab was hardly a fitting epitaph, and though I've travelled to Cape Canaveral to visit the Apollo and shuttle launch sites, everything since that has been space related has paled in comparison to what the likes of Amstrong, Aldrin, Cernan, Scott, Duke, Bean and the rest have achieved.

The pace of my life quickened, but deep inside remains a frozen wonder at the ability of man to reach out into space with less computing power than is in my mobile phone.

It has all come back to me in the last few days. Some weeks ago I pitched the idea of writing about the possibility of man going to Mars in my lifetime to a couple of editors. One was interested, but wanted a hook for the piece. So I said I'd try and contact some of the people associated with space travel to date to get their views - since mine as an enthusiastic space watcher, without an 'ology' to my name, are worth pretty much nothing.

Since then, I've been trawling the web, re-reading articles and even dropping the odd e-mail the way of NASA, some of the British authorities on the subject - and even one or two astronauts (the ones that have web sites).

What I understand is why we would go and whether there's sufficient rational reason to invest huge amounts of time and even huger amounts of money into what could be an ultimate folly. To try and understand this, I've been trying to rationalise why we went to the moon - and why three years later, we stopped.

A great an compelling source of information has been Andrew Smith's Moondust . Here, Smith charts his own personal journey to meet the nine surviving men who've stood on the moon to try and understand the impact it has had on them.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects is how so few can communicate what their experience has meant to them. Some have channelled their lives into new directions, perhaps to explain, or in some way communicate, the massiveness of their experience, but others have become more 'Spock-like' either distant from the aura or trapped in the logic of the events. But isn't that what we should expect if we send totally-focused engineers to encounter an experience beyond the imagination of so many?

Perhaps we would have viewed the whole Apollo experience if the 12 who'd stepped out on the moon had included a poet, a politician, a rock star....and even a female or two?

Relating Smith's experience to my own, I've often found great clarity but little poetry when discussing business communication with engineers and execs who come from that background, whereas there has often been passion, warmth, involvement and connection when covering the same areas with those who've come from marketing or people disciplines - but rarely much sense of detail or analytical depth. The key to great leadership communication, of course, is the mix of both.

But back to the moon. Nearly two years ago I had the chance to meet Apollo Commander David Scott when he was launching a new book, but passed up the opportunity to attend the press briefing and gave my ticket to a talk he gave in Oxford away. Having read Smith's book (and he was at the event that night), I now regret that deeply, since it turns out that Scott is even more reclusive than the legendary recluse, Neil Armstrong.

I'm looking forward to the next few weeks when I have a number of interviews lined up with people who I'm assured can make the science of getting to Mars memorable and compelling.

I hope that they can also provide a rational but exciting reason why we have to get back into deep space, one that will excite people around the world to support the endeavour. My children will be adults by the time whatever follows Apollo into deep space finally heads for Mars - if it ever does. Perhaps their children will experience that same thrill, that same sense of wonder, and the slight butterflies of fear that I remember from those far off days.

Meanwhile, I'll remain moon-struck (even Mars-struck), and perhaps I'll even get to talk to an astronaut - always heroes in my book.

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