Neil Armstrong’s Moonwalk: Missions Possible

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Shortly into his mandate, President John Kennedy announced that before the end of the decade, America would put a man on the Moon. Promise fulfilled: ‘the Eagle has landed,’ uttered Neil Armstrong to Earth on 21 July 1969. In a little while he would make the ‘small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind’ on the lunar surface. And the rest is, as the saying goes, history.

43 years later, last week, the first man to walk on the Moon died from complications following heart surgery at the age of 82, having chosen to spend his life, after his pioneering steps, in relative privacy, shunning public glare.

During that decade, which followed upon the initial satellite launches starting in 1957, space exploration increased with the launch of more and more satellites and rockets as the two superpowers – the US and the USSR – rivaled each other intensely. The first big event in my memory was the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 by the Soviets, the first one to go round the Earth. A second one was then sent with a dog, Laica, on board. Unfortunately it did not survive, in fact it died a few days later in space itself.

If one takes a look at the local papers of that time, one would come across a story about Laica having been found on a tree in either St Paul or Phoenix! Some prankster had made a sick joke, trust us Mauritians to do that. I cannot recall the details, but I certainly do remember that apparently a real dead dog or a made-up one had been strung up on the tree, and rumours quickly spread around that it was Laica. And for a while it seems we did believe that this was so! Perhaps someone thought that tiny Mauritius could ambition to join the space race…

For there was no doubt in the popular mind that it was indeed a race between the superpowers, as we were regularly fed with news about the one or other sending ever more sophisticated spacecraft aloft. As secondary school students then, we had been reading about the Second World War in our history lessons, and had learnt about the German V-2 rockets that were used, and the name of the one who came to be referred to as the father of rocket science, Werner von Braun. He had subsequently gone to America, where his work led the development of the Saturn-V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.

Today rockets and satellites are taken for granted, like many other inventions, and the common man does not get excited about these events, except when there is a mishap, such as the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft as it was hurtling towards the Earth a few years ago, observed helplessly by ground staff. All the crew on board died. A similar incident had happened with an Apollo rocket in the 1980s, and the Russians had also had accidents, with loss of life, in their programmes.

High-level investigations were of course carried out in all cases, to try and trace the cause, either engineering failure or human error, and learn lessons for future guidance. Mankind owes a lot to these valiant martyrs who gave up their lives in these pioneering endeavours. The experiments they took part in would eventually benefit all of us, and it is left to the experts to tell us how such advances in science and technology have led to a multitude of applications that cut across all fields in the military and civilian domains. Perhaps most obvious to us would be weather satellites, and those used to monitor agriculture and the environment on a global scale.

The latest in space exploration is of course the Curiosity Rover that is currently making its gradual way on the surface of the planet Mars, in a bid to find out if there are traces of water on the planet. That would indicate that Mars may have harboured life, though what form nobody knows. Certainly not the little Green Men of science fiction, or the inhuman, monstrous looking creatures that try to invade the Earth in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. With what excitement we had watched the film of the same name, and thought that an invasion by Martians was imminent!

The human race has made material progress in leaps and bounds, and we owe our comfort today, and the even greater ones that perhaps await us in future, to the discoverers and pioneers who have made all this possible. At the very least we must make it a duty to learn if only a little about these men and women who often worked under tremendous constraints, of money, of rivalry, of lack of support among others, but who carried on nevertheless, often at much personal sacrifice and suffering. The names of Marie and her daughter Irene Curie come to mind, both of whom suffered from radiation damage during their experiments with radioactive material.

In the field of medicine one can cite many examples of people who took personal risk. One that belongs to our times is the discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. It was identified by Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in 1982, who found that it was present in patients with chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers, conditions that were not previously believed to have a microbial cause. In fact Marshall drank a beaker of H. pylori culture and became ill with nausea and vomiting several days later, and washings from his stomach showed the presence of the microbe. The two went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

This discovery brought a dramatic change in the management of stomach ulcers, which formerly been thought to be caused by ‘hurry, worry and curry,’ as we were taught in my medical school days. Along with strict dietary regimes, a variety of operations were in vogue for ulcer treatment, and every operation list used to have cases of ulcer surgery until the discovery of H. pylori. Now these ulcers are treated by a standard combination of three antibiotics, and the days of surgery for stomach ulcer are practically over.

One could multiply examples indefinitely, but I will stop here. Interested readers may pursue their own search, and will be amply rewarded for the time spent in sharing – albeit vicariously — in the excitement of the great people who work so hard to make our lives and living both comfortable and worthwhile. Such learning is itself a wonderful adventure…

* Published in print edition on 31 August 2012

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