WESTMINSTER DIARY: The progress we’ve made in 50 years

I believe I have mentioned before of my major interest (some of my friends call it a fixation!) with space exploration and research.

I have been the Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee, and also campaigned for Britain to have its own space port, a dream that came a step closer when the government announced support funding last year.

One of the most fascinating moments of my life was when I was fortunate enough to meet Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon in 1972.

You can probably imagine, then, my excitement as we approach July 20/21 and we mark the 50th anniversary of the first time a man walked on the moon. The actual date of the commemoration could be up for debate.

The first steps were taken at 10.56pm on July 20 as measured in Houston but, as this was (obviously) an non-terrestrial event it is normally stated to have happened at 2.56am Coordinated Universal Time, on July 21.

Just 22 hours later, the two astronauts climbed back into the landing module and, while the world held its breath, blasted off for the journey home. One of the most remarkable feats in mankind’s history had been achieved.

However, the US weren’t the only country to achieve a technological first back in 1969.

The British and the French, working together, had built Concorde and this flew for the first time in March of that year.

By a country mile, the most beautiful passenger aircraft ever produced, the challenges it had to overcome were numerous. For example the fuselage would expand by 30cm during supersonic flight because of the heat caused by air friction, although in some ways that added to its beauty as it meant it had to be painted predominantly in reflective white paint to reduce the temperature of the plane.

In many ways that Anglo-French achievement was the equal of the Apollo missions. Some may scoff at that suggestion – and certainly no one has come close to visiting the moon in the last 47 years.

However, no country has ever been able to come close to building a supersonic passenger jet either.

(Today, the New York to Heathrow flight takes about 6½ hours, but in 1996 a Concorde made the journey in 2 hours 53 minutes).

And it is not as if they haven’t tried.

The Soviet Union (as it then was) built the Tu-144, but that crashed twice during testing and never made it into service. The two US giants, Boeing and Lockheed had a go, but couldn’t viably overcome the challenges posed by faster than sound travel. Yes – the British (and the French) reign supreme!

In many ways we have made so much progress in the last 50 years – but in others we seem to have lost the sheer determination and imagination to achieve the near impossible.

If you want to find out more about Concorde, the last British plane to fly is on display at Aerospace Bristol. More information can be found here: www.aerospacebristol.org

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Staff Writer
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