FIVE hundred million people around the world sat awestruck watching their TV screens on July 20, 1969 as the Eagle, Apollo 11’s Moon lander vehicle, settled its legs into the soft grey dust on the Moon’s surface.
I was one of them. My grandpa was dying and our family had gathered at my Aunt Alice’s house in Mansfield to be with him in his final hours. We were sat round the kitchen table in our pyjamas and nighties at 6am, eating buttered toast and drinking tea. When Neil Armstrong took his first step on to the Moon’s surface, we all cheered. He had to jump from the last rung of the ladder because it hadn’t deployed properly.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” his voice crackled. He planted the Stars and Stripes on a small flagpole. The flag stood straight out – the lack of gravity stopped it from drooping.
There is more computer processing power in my iPhone than there was in the spacecraft that took America’s astronauts to the Moon. It was an astonishing accomplishment. To this day, every time I look at the Moon I remember the moment we sent human beings there to leave their footprints on its surface.
When I was growing up, my dad was a keen amateur astronomer. Once a month, he would drive up Blackford Hill to the Royal Observatory and if the night sky was clear he would look at the moon through its huge telescope. I got my first telescope when I was eight years old. It brought the lunar craters a little closer, making me feel like I’d been let into a secret that nobody else could share.
Last year, a year before he died, I took my dad back to the Observatory. The tour guide took us outside on to the roof first – the views across Edinburgh are breathtaking. After we came inside, a matronly Indian astronomer gave us an hour-long lecture about the night sky. My dad was like a kid again. When she asked what shapes we could see in the major star constellations, Dad shouted out “Giraffe!”
I’ve forgotten a lot of what our lecturer told us but one thing stuck firmly in my mind: that one day the Sun would explode and all life here would be extinguished in a second.
We might think we’re the most important life-form on the universe, but the truth is that we’re here by accident and we’ll vanish as quickly as we arrived, leaving no trace. The universe will carry on fine without us.
Some of the warm nights this summer past brought clear skies over Leith and the news was warning us there would be showers of Perseids – shooting stars. My wife and I took exercise mats out on to the balcony and lay down, gazing skyward. We were there for two hours. “That was one!” she kept shouting every so often. I kept missing them – I didn’t even know what I was looking for then suddenly I saw a streak of white light arc across my vision. “I saw one, I saw one!”
My wife spotted 30 shooting stars that night. I saw three. But she also taught me how to see satellites. Higher and brighter than a plane, a satellite moves quickly on a steady course. Once you know what to look for – a tiny ball of silver light – they get easier to see. Some of them are up there to bring us international football. Others have a more sinister purpose.
We’ve come a long way but we’ll never fully understand what’s out there in space and why we’re part of it.
We’ve taken our Christmas decorations to another dimension
The first time I saw a video of 3D printing I thought it was a clever hoax. My brain wouldn’t take in that it was actually possible. One nerdy guy said he was going to “photocopy” a mechanical wrench then “print off” a working copy. “Do these guys think I’m stupid? Is it April Fool’s Day?”
But no, the acting was good. The techies were too perfectly nerdy. This was real. My mind was duly blown.
Of course, once your brain accepts the novelty you start imagining what the possibilities are. The next video I saw was pretty sinister. It showed a guy 3D printing a working gun. He was American so why bother? You can get hold of as many guns as you want there without going to all the trouble of 3D printing them. All the same, I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck.
Next thing I saw was a 3D pen. Yup, you can draw in three dimensions. It’s a pen that sculpts a line into any shape you want as you draw in the air. Only a matter of months later and Amazon were selling it for less than £80.
It was only a matter of time before the techies started playing with scale. First of all, they made it possible for people to have their own little desktop 3D printer. That done, they began to think big. Now there’s a guy in China who’s 3D printing houses. He can print ten a day! And a Dutch architectural firm is about to 3D print a bridge over a canal in the centre of Amsterdam.
So this technology is going to revolutionise industry. The question is, which aspect of it is going to go mainstream first? To me, the answer’s pretty obvious. In the Age Of The Selfie, we’re all going to go nuts for 3D versions of ourselves. And our children. And our pets.
My wife and I run a small advertising and marketing consultancy and it soon dawned on us that instead of conventional 2D photography, making perfect little figurines of ourselves could be a useful way to promote ourselves. Off we went to Asda at The Jewel. We stepped into a circular Tardis-style interior and 54 cameras took our picture simultaneously. Three weeks later, we picked ourselves up. And here we are, seven inches high, ready to be hung on the Christmas tree or propped into the Nativity scene.
Choc’s away in 70s
Christmas in the Seventies was hard to beat. You could still get a silver threepenny bit in your Christmas pudding, Noddy Holder, pictured, was screaming “It’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaas!” into the microphone and, best of all, there were Chocolate liqueurs. All those forbidden nectars injected into a sweetie. One bite and your mouth was flooded with cognac or whisky or white rum. And your mum and dad didn’t care. They were too busy drinking Mateus Rose to notice you, aged 13, getting hammered on a box of chocolates.