Monday, 22 June 2009

A moonage daydream

Before girls and booze came along to distract me, I spent many a pre-teen evening staring into space. I was geekily obsessed, in a way that only a teenage boy could understand, with astronomy and spaceflight.

Where did it all begin? Well, I remember an infant school lesson about clouds. Cumulus, cirrus stratus, nimbulus... this new appreciation for the various different kinds of aerial fluff must surely have pointed my tiny head upwards?

Or would it have been Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind in 1969? My sleepy head was woken from its cushion on the floor next to the settee by Mum and Dad, determined that I should witness these live 4am pictures of an actual man actually stood on the actual moon! My five-year-old brain couldn't quite fathom what was going on, to be honest - and I think I was as much confused by the concept of live TV as I was with space travel. But I am blessed to be able to remember the ghostly image of the space-suited American on our telly, and my parents' obvious excitement, with photographic clarity. Every miniscule detail of that night is hard-wired into my head; right down to where my Dad was sat and what my Mum had to say about it all.

Other Apollo moon missions followed, and some of these were beamed to us, a gaggle of excitable junior schoolchildren, on our much-loved school telly. This beast of an object towered above our faces on cylindrical feet, and it had adjustable flappy shutters to shade the screen from sunlight. We were lined up in neat rows on plastic assembly chairs and told to keep quiet. Thus the lunar rover, the orange soil under the grey moondust, the silly game of golf by men in white helmets - all were lapped up by young boys and girls grateful to be let out of afternoon maths.

I collected cards with pictures of Gemini and Mercury space capsules on them from packets of tea. My Mum bought me a set of 'Outer Space' transfers, which I scratched into place inside a suitably space-themed picture album. I would spend hours sitting upside down on the settee, with my mum's hairdryer bits and pieces attached to my head and belly like some kind of Woolworth's space helmet, her curlers pushed together to assume a rocket-like shape, and pretend I was about to blast off on some great adventure.

The worlds of science fiction and science fact merged, and Dr Who's adventures became very real in my super-imaginative head. I lapped up programmes like 'Space 1999' and dreamed of becoming an astronaut myself. Urged on by my Mum, I wrote a hopeful letter to NASA: and some months (or possibly years?) later, I got a bumper parcel of leaflets, pictures and brochures in the mail from the US. It's quite possible that I was the first kid in Europe to see illustrations of a prototype space shuttle. My mum was well pleased with the generosity of Americans. "They're always good to kids," she'd say, possibly recalling her own experience with the G.I.s posted at County Ground, Exeter, during the Second World War.

I saw my first comet around 1975, when I was 11 years old. Kohoutek was faint but well-publicised on telly. Then came another one, very soon after. I don't remember its name, but it was brighter and easier to spot than the relative damp squib of its predecessor. The power of hype. This visitor to our skies had a beautiful tail which stretched some way toward the summer sunset when viewed from the back garden of our South Devon family home.

Within 12 months or so, I had learned my way around the sky and memorised the names and details of most of the major stars and constellations. I spent hours outdoors with my Observer Book of the Night Sky, patiently figuring out my Betelgeuses from my Arcturuses, aided by binoculars and a small telescope borrowed from my Dad's RAF souvenirs. I saw binary stars, star clusters, nebulae, moon craters and hundreds of meteors.

I bored anyone who'd pretend to listen with whatever piece of info I'd been able to pick up from The Sky At Night or The Guardian, who ran monthly star charts and observing tips. I quickly worked out how to track satellites as they streaked across the sky. I tried, but failed, to watch Skylab fall. But I did get to see the Apollo-Soyuz link-up, miles above my suburban home cul-de-sac.

Around the age of 13 or 14, Christmas was good to me. Santa brought me a decent telescope, with a tripod, which allowed me to gaze in wonder at Jupiter's four main satellites, study Saturn's rings, gape at Venus and Mercury and sketch the Ring nebula in Lyra and the Hercules globular star cluster. I patiently picked out faint asteroids, I collected magnetic extra-terrestrial samples with a rainwater-filtering process picked up from a book, and I saw a partial solar eclipse and a couple of lunar ones. And one wonderful weekend, I mithered my parents into driving me to the Royal Observatory in Herstmonceux, Sussex. A fine day out. All the way home, my head craned backwards to watch the stars and planets through the rear windscreen as we bobbed along the A303.

At school, I took an astro-navigation course with the school cadets. Give me a sky full of stars and I could, in theory, steer myself towards home if I found myself marooned on a dinghy off the 'Horn. In theory, I could land a stricken plane too. But that's another story...

From then on, I really got stuck in. I joined the local Astronomical Society. I contributed essays and observations to their periodical, 'Helios', I went on field trips to observatories, Stonehenge and the like, I wrote articles for the local press and I started to build my own rather more powerful telescope. I took an O'Level in Astronomy and scored a B. Not bad, since it had been all my own work - there was no science teacher qualified to teach me at my school.

It intensified. I joined the British Astronomical Association and aligned myself to both their Meteor section and their Venus group. I would go to lectures and talk with confidence about astronomical events with beardy scientists who clearly knew a hell of a lot more than me. I produced a few drawings of Jupiter's cloudbelts using my newly-built 6" reflector telescope. I started to grind mirrors for a second instrument, which would be used purely for photographic observations. Oh, yes. I was pretty hardcore into the astronomy and I had big plans to take it to a broader stage. This was massive fun. What could be more attractive than spending the night, alone, in a pitch black garden?

It was inevitable. Almost all at once I discovered girls, cigarettes, booze, David Bowie records, teenage chatter, New Wave and punk music, discos and gigs. I'd spend less nights looking up - far more falling down.

The telescope spent longer and longer under its protective blanket in the garage, my membership of the British Astronomical Association lapsed, and when meetings of the local astronomical society came around, they always seemed to clash with something far more important. I was Membership Secretary in name, but I was slipping away from membership myself.

Fast forward to today and I still know my way around the night sky - although my telescope has long since gone. But, give me news about a new comet and I'm out there, looking for it. Give me an eclipse and I'll plot a voyage to see it.

And, rest assured, I could still navigate us around the 'Horn if our lives depended on it.

1 comment: