25 October 2012

S4M-03911 Neil Armstrong

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-03911, in the name of Willie Coffey, on Neil Armstrong. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with sadness the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and commander of Apollo 11, which landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969; recognises the significant human and scientific achievement made by the Apollo 11 team of Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot, Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot, Michael Collins; notes Neil Armstrong’s family connections with the town of Langholm in Scotland, and echoes the sentiments expressed by commander Armstrong as he set foot on the moon when he said, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):
The story of Neil Armstrong is the story of what a country can achieve when it cleaves to its bosom the highest of ambitions. It was, of course, driven by the flight on 12 April 1961 of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, who went for a single orbit around the earth. That was the ultimate, highest and greatest of game changers.

When, on 25 May 1961—only a few weeks after that flight—John F Kennedy set his country on the path that took Americans to the moon, that was deemed to be absolutely impossible. No one knew how to do it or that it could be done. There were huge technical challenges to be overcome.

The leading plans—there were four alternatives—relied on the rendezvous of space vehicles in orbit around the moon. That had never been done around the earth at that stage, far less around the moon. The onboard navigational computer to which Iain Gray referred—the Apollo guidance computer—had only 1.3W of electricity and only 2,000 words of computer memory to do its computations.

Some of the challenges were organisational. The programme involved 400,000 people and 20,000 firms and universities. As an organisational challenge in a short period of time, it was beyond previous contemplation.

When Neil Armstrong stepped on to Apollo 11 with his fellow astronauts, he knew that the flight was not without risk. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died on Apollo 1 in a flash fire on the launch pad and Vladimir Komarov was the first cosmonaut to be killed during space flight, on Soyuz 1. Like Gus Grissom, Vladimir Komarov was the first person from his nation to fly twice in space.

There were aspects of the programme that are perhaps little known and little regarded. Almost all the mathematical computations were undertaken by women. NASA decided to employ all-women teams to do the calculations because they were deemed to be more reliable and it was deemed that better intuition could be applied by the women. That built on the previous experience of Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper, who was the first computer programmer in the electronic age—Lord Byron’s niece, Ada Lovelace, was the first at all, of course.

I had the good fortune in the early 1990s to stay for three nights with a guy called Lanny Lafferty, who worked for the jet propulsion laboratory. He was the man who designed and operated the first robot hand that grasped Martian soil. There is so much in the programme that is absolutely fascinating and it has contributed so much—Teflon, for example, and the computer that was the first to be built on integrated computer chips.

In today’s modern world, we owe so much to this programme, but above all we owe so much to Neil Armstrong, who put his life on the line to inspire us and to inspire others. Ambition, courage and fine management delivered, but Neil Armstrong put his life on the line. Thank you, Neil Armstrong.


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