A first light celebration for the Discovery Channel Telescope was held Saturday night (July 21, 2012). The company I work for is a sponsor of Lowell Observatory and I was one of the four people representing us there. The special treat of the night was that Neil Armstrong would be attending and speaking later in the evening. At an early reception, a group of about 3 to 4 dozen Lowell Observatory sponsors had a chance to meet and talk with Mr. Armstrong. Afterward, we joined a larger group to get photos taken.
I was pretty much at a loss for words--I mean what could I say that he hasn't endured a million times before or that wouldn't be self-serving or cheesy? So I just introduced myself and shook hands with the first man to walk on the Moon. Pretty cool!
At the dinner event later, we heard from trustee William Lowell Putnam III, Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks, and others who were key to the success of the DCT project. When Armstrong got up to speak, he got a standing ovation from 730+ people, did a skip-jump and a smile on his way up to the podium, and then worked his way around to a topic that he apparently hears frequently: couldn't that research money be spent better elsewhere? He pointed to the investment made in the work of Tycho Brahe four centuries ago. The measurements that Tycho made were then put to use by Kepler to establish the laws of planetary motion. Kepler's work was then a springboard for Newton and his Laws of Motion which helped fuel the industrial revolution that followed, and so on.
The highlight of his presentation was his narration of the Eagle's final minutes before touchdown. He used a video created recently by an amateur astronomer who used high-resolution, LRO images to re-create the moment-by-moment view from Eagle. On the left side of the screen was the actual filmed sequence through the lander window, and on the right side the re-created imagery which was a perfect match, but much more crisp and detailed. At about 540 ft. altitude, he described disengaging autopilot and guiding the lander, like flying a helicopter, to prevent them from touching down on the rugged rim of a stadium-sized crater.
As he piloted the lander, the seconds of remaining fuel ticked away and alarms nagged in the background--earlier in the descent, he noted cryptic, four-digit alarm codes sounding, but that this just wasn't the time to break out the owner's manual to figure out what they meant. As the lander finally touched down and the engine shut off, Armstrong's 43 year old communication crackled through the auditorium, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." --and the room broke out in applause and cheers. How cool was that!
One of the key items that had to be done was the setup of a laser reflecting mirror that would be used to determe the distance to the moon with high accuracy. Neil noted that he wasn't a developer or scientist on the experiment. He was more of an engineer who was sent out to install the mirror--with a two-and-a-half-day site visit. He described aligning the mirror to Earth's position, looking up and described the striking view our home as a "turquoise pendant" suspended in an ink-black sky.
Armstrong went on to describe how at first, the facility at Mt. Hamilton had difficulty acquiring reflected laser pulses from the mirror. After a great deal of frustration, they finally discovered that the originally accepted latitude and longitude used to describe the Mt. Hamilton site (and thus aim the laser) were incorrect. So he quipped that the first valuable data acquired by the Lunar Laser Ranging experiment was to correctly fix the position of Mt. Hamilton. Over time though, the experiment has been able to demonstrate, among other things, that the moon is receding from the Earth at a rate of 3.8 cm per year, that the moon likely has a liquid core, and confirming aspects of general relativity.
His overall point, of course, was pointing to the value that major scientific undertakings including the DCT project, can have in yielding enriching and unexpected results and inspire further discovery.
And so what's coming up for the DCT in the public eye? The Discovery Channel is getting ready to release the first special about the telescope titled "Scanning the Skies" this September. I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store on that front too.