On 20 July 1969 I was just seven years old and was sitting in front of a black and white television in a house by the woods in Hampshire in the UK with my parents and my sister. It was 9.17 pm British Summer Time, and way past my bedtime, but I was not at all tired. I had been glued to the screen for the past three hours. Even my mother, who was a keen homemaker and always focussed on the here and now of domestic arrangements, had paused the washing up to watch events unfold 238,855 miles away. Two American astronauts had just landed on the Moon. For me this was the stuff of dreams. And we were watching it from our sitting room in England. Buzz Aldrin announced, “The Eagle has landed.” amongst the regular beeps of the carrier signal. Wow, I thought, they’ve made it.
“Beat the bloody Russians to it,” my father said. He had hurdled for the UK combined services team in his youth and was competitive by default. “And all achieved in miles, feet and inches: none of that metric rubbish.”
I wanted to know whether the astronauts could live on the moon and not come home. “No dear,” my mother said. “They would want to come home to their families.”
My sister was four years old, so probably does not remember any of this now. She would later, as a teenager, be very interested in “Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man” but I think mainly from a romantic point of view rather than a scientific one, Lee Majors who played Austin being an American heart throb. She also liked dinosaurs.
My father was in the Royal Engineers, a corps in the British Army, and was keen on maths and making things – practical things. So we watched the moon landing and marvelled that the lunar module was so small, that the signals from the moon took so long to get back to earth, that it must be so difficult to control the landing craft’s rockets so that it touched down softly on the lunar surface. That the moon’s gravity was less than on earth so they bounced around when they walked, and there was no atmosphere.
I don’t remember us talking much about what is for me now the most remarkable thing about that mission: the bravery of the astronauts, the risks they were taking, and even that they had no idea if they could actually carry off this amazing feat. They prepared for years. They practised with unmanned rockets and landings. They crashed craft into the moon’s surface. But they did not know if they would be able to land men on the moon AND get them back again. And they went for it anyway. The crew was confident that they could do it, and believed in themselves and the whole team at NASA. But they didn’t know for certain. And they went for it anyway.
I was a clumsy child. It was difficult for me to catch a ball, and I spent many frustrating hours learning to do this with my father. I fell off my bicycle nearly every day, but I did get back on it again and never gave up trying to get it right. I tripped over on the pavement, and I was no good at running, coming last in most of the races at the school sports day. I made Airfix models of planes, boats, and rockets with my father, but he would do most of the delicate handiwork because it never worked out for me. There would be glue over my fingers, my clothes, the table, the floor. This drove my mother crazy of course.
So the story was: Rupert is clumsy, Rupert is not going to be good at sports, Rupert is slapdash, a thinker not a doer.
I could read, though. I came home from school every day of the week and read to my mother from my latest school book, at the kitchen table as she prepared tea or dinner for us. We had stories before bed and I would read Winnie the Pooh along with my father, doing the voices, him chortling at things too adult for me to understand. So the story then was: Rupert might be clumsy, but he is very clever – we mustn’t let him get big-headed about it, though. “Everyone likes ass, but no-one likes a smart ass” my father would say, which I would not understand until my teens.
Given this narrative, it may seem odd that I decided at the age of about 16 that it would be a good idea to find out about becoming an Army officer. Odd, because I was thin, not physically fit, sporty or athletic in any way (I could swim very well, but team sports were really not my forte). Odd because I was painfully shy as an adolescent, and officers were never shy. They were out in front, the centre of attention, and in charge. I just was not the go-getter, larger than life type who most of my parents’ Army friends were. But I did want to be. I did not know whether I could bring this off or not, but I resolved to give it a try.
Officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. One December night I was standing in a trench on Salisbury Plain, snow falling around me, cold, wet, hungry, exhausted watching the sun rise. My toothpaste was frozen in its tube. My face was numb with cold as I shaved. I could not feel the soles of my feet. I was miserable, and wondering why I was there, and what was the point of it all.
I had got a good degree in Civil Engineering, so I could have been working anywhere in the world, constructing bridges or important public buildings, but no. I kept going, passed the course and became an officer.
During the rest of my eight years in the Army I discovered one thing above all about myself, and about other people too: we can all do much, much more than we ever imagine we can.
And that includes going to the moon.