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Ken MacTaggart

Ken MacTaggart near Gairloch, Wester Ross, Scotland, 2004. Photo by Alastair Gray.

Ken MacTaggart

One of my earliest memories is standing outside our home in Dorchester Avenue, Glasgow in October 1957, aged four-and-a-half years, and staring at the sky with my father. We were of course looking for Sputnik, the first earth satellite - a futile task through Scottish clouds.

A continuing fascination with celestial matters ensued. Although I tried to follow the early unmanned space flights to the moon and Mars, in those days of few specialist publications and no internet, it was hard to find information. Then the first Apollo flights started the media frenzy and good press coverage ensued. I followed closely the daring explorations that occurred in rapid succession over those exciting few months in 1968 and 1969.

I have clear recollections from the era, unclouded by the large volume of later material now emerging. There was the first flight of the seemingly huge Apollo 7 command module in earth orbit, with TV tours of its interior by the astronauts. A few weeks later came the astonishing announcement that Apollo 8 would attempt to circle the moon on only the second Apollo flight, and the fuzzy TV pictures of the receding earth as they set off. When The Times of London published one of its first-ever colour editions for the photos brought back by the Apollo 8 crew, I went into the city especially to get it - and still have it. These were startling, epoch-shaping images, our first clear views of the multi-coloured earth floating against the black void. Just a few Kodak colour transparencies, commonplace photos nowadays perhaps, but then they were a revelation about our place in the universe, and the topic of public amazement. They appeared on countless magazine covers and advertisements.

Paris Match magazine also had excellent moon coverage, extending even to coloured geology maps, which I suppose helped my French studies. When a school essay was set for the topic "Premier Homme Sur la Lune", this was a real gift. I bewildered my French teacher with technical astronautical terms culled from Paris Match - "les petits moteurs verniers de correction d'attitude" comes to mind.

The landing of Apollo 11 on live TV was of course a cliff-hanger, as the clock showed the craft still aloft perilously past its planned landing time, with fuel running out. The family gathered silently around a black-and-white television set to watch it that Thursday evening in summer. Apollo 12 and its targeting to "Conrad's Parking Lot" (as it was informally named by the astronauts in Time magazine, as I recall) in search of the unmanned Surveyor 3, seemed hardly less exciting. I failed to get off school to watch the first EVA, and was almost relieved to learn later that the colour TV camera had broken and I didn't miss much. Instead, I followed it in class on my transistor radio. I did the same between classes during Apollo 14's abortive climb to the rim of Cone Crater, which left me deeply disappointed as I had wanted to see the interior of a big crater. Even now it still seems astonishing to have listened, live, to people chatting as they walked around on another world.

It's hard to convey to those who did not experience it "live", what the excitement of that short period in the late Sixties was like. By mid-December 1968 humans had never been out of low earth orbit, but the Russians had already accomplished the first circumlunar flight and recovery of a Zond capsule capable of carrying crew. A repeat Russian flight, this time manned, was set to follow. Then almost out of nowhere, NASA flew four dazzlingly intricate flights in just seven months to culminate in the lunar landing.

The last three landings went into more interesting landscapes and spent more time on science, aided by the Lunar Rover vehicle. As a keen hill-climber, I well remember the awesome first sight of lunar mountains from ground level, when the Apollo 15 television camera was panned round. These were not pointed peaks as I expected, but huge whalebacks culminating in Mount Hadley, its western slopes in deep shadow and the 13,000-feet summit catching the sun. With the clarity of no atmosphere, it looked like a small hillock nearby, but was actually as tall the Alps. I wondered what it would be like to walk along the ridge.

Having studied geology and the Scottish Carboniferous and Tertiary basalts, I was especially interested in the topography and geology of the landing sites, and all the fascinating corners the astronauts got to on their moon walks and drives. Over thirty-five years on, I feel I could walk round those places today, and point out the familiar features without any guide - the curious shaped rocks on the rim of Cone Crater at Fra Mauro, the bedrock at Bench Crater in Oceanus Procellarum, the rubble strewn Hadley Rille from the side of St George Crater, and the boulders trails on the mountains at Taurus Littrow.

It was a disappointment in many ways when the moon program ended in 1972, but with hindsight the flights do now seem extraordinarily dangerous despite the unquestioned skill and daring of the crews, with their primitive technology and no hope of rescue.

Eric Jones and I had a mildly exciting time for a few days in 1996 when we thought we had discovered the elusive placement marks for one location of the Gold surface close-up camera (at 110:47:37). These high-magnification soil photos were grabbed by Neil Armstrong in a rush, and no proper record was kept of where the images were taken. Buzz Aldrin later told me in Brighton, England, that the camera was added at the last minute and resented a little by the crew. The mysterious marks I noticed in the soil around the LM turned out to have been made by springy coils of the television cable and other equipment.

I've also been involved in various other issues related to the Journal. An interest in terrestrial place names widened to lunar names, including the matter of how West Crater at the Apollo 11 site was named. In fact it lies west of the planned landing point, but might it be named after lunar geologist Mareta West, I wondered? Mareta West was the first person to suggest correctly which crater in the landing area Armstrong had flown over, as Gene Shoemaker's team struggled to pinpoint where Eagle had come down (First on the Moon, 1970, UK edition page 248, US edition page 296). It seemed quite a coincidence, that a Ms. West would locate the missing lunar module at West Crater. I put this to Shoemaker, but sadly he died before he could reply, and it was finally resolved by the USGS and Don Wilhelms, with the help of Mary Chapman and Gerry Schaber in 2004.

As it turned out, West Crater was indeed named for its westerly location with respect to the intended landing site, although it is some way east of Tranquillity Base, and there was also a North Crater further round the landing ellipse. West's neighbour, Little West Crater, which Armstrong walked to, is sometimes confusingly called East Crater as it sits just east of the Lunar Module (see 102:44:25 and 111:10:00). Although later flights did a good job of informally naming the features around their landing sites, Apollo 11 landed unexpectedly in an unprepared area with little advance orientation on the site.

Other Journal contributors helped resolve the claim I found in the book of a Scottish academic colleague, that Alan Bean left a swatch of tartan (plaid) on the moon during Apollo 12. In fact he didn't, and only realised his genealogical connection with the MacBean Clan after the flight.

I have worked as a journalist, economist and now economic consultant in the beautiful Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I continue to write a little and give talks on various subjects, including history, genealogy, place names, astronomy and the lunar explorations. On a clear night, I still readily pick out with binoculars the six familiar locations on the lunar disc where human footprints still lie fresh in the dust. June 2007