Learning from Apollo

Lego model of the Lunar Excursion Module

Apollo 11 is more than nostalgia for me, it’s a way to think about tomorrow’s challenges

If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission then you’re probably already completely entranced by the BBC World Service podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, in which Kevin Fong dissects the landing and puts every aspect into a broader technical, political, social and profoundly human context.

13 Minutes to the Moon

It’s an outstanding series in every respect, combining archive footage from the mission and old and new interviews with many of those involved, with an intelligent script and beautiful sound design, and I can’t recommend it enough. Produced by  Andrew Luck-Baker and with Rami Tzabar as Executive Producer, it’s brilliantly made and one of the best audio documentaries you can find online.

If you work in computing or engineering then it’s worth it just for the insight into the complexities of the hardware and software involved, as it doesn’t hold back from going into technical details about the engineering and coding challenges, giving you all the background you need to be fully present as the lunar excursion module separates from the command module and begins to descend. Knowing how it ends doesn’t diminish the power of the story, or the emotional investment you make as a listener.

It’s worth listening to every episode – each is around 45 minutes – but if you don’t have time the whole thing then I urge you to listen to Episodes 8 and 9, which take you from the separation of the two spacecraft in lunar orbit – the Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module –  to the final ’stay’ decision after landing. And that detail is what makes it so good – it doesn’t stop at the moment of touchdown, but covers the three points in the next two hours when Mission Control had to decide to stay or go.  They stay.

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The Day the Music Dies

Points of light

A long long time ago…

I was at the Janelle Monáe gig at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, and it was as magnificent as you’d expect from this brilliant performer. We stood close enough to see properly, and far enough back to dance properly.

Between songs she said something that resonated with me, and it has prompted me to finish a piece I’d been noodling around with for some weeks. Speaking with some emotion, she said that the reason she performed was to create memories, to pass something to each of us in the audience, and she expressed a hope that we’d pass the memories we were making tonight on to others.

In one way this echoes the grand concept of her songs, which reflect the world of an android named Cindi Mayweather, an alter-ego through whom Monáe explores ideas of technology and otherness. After all, the memories of androids can be stored and transferred – or wiped as in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture [see https://www.jmonae.com/] that accompanies the album which links the songs together with a story in which defective androids – ‘dirty’ computers – have their memories erased to make them ’normal’.

But for me, as I looked around an auditorium filled with points of light from thousands of mobile phones – twenty years ago it would have been cigarette lighters but few people carry them any more and there are probably sprinklers in the roof now- it made me think of the real organic memories that were being made in this place, at this time, with these people, making this music. Memories that can’t be downloaded or moved around on the quantum equivalent of USB sticks. It made me wonder what happens to Janelle Monáe’s music when the last person in this room, the last person to have been in the same space as her as she performs, dies.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, mostly because of Chopin and Buddy Holly, and because it’s forty years since I saw The Who play at Wembley, without Keith Moon.

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