Czech geologist remembers Moon missions

Photo: NASA

This week people around the world marked the 35th anniversary of the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20th, 1969. Czechs were behind the Iron Curtain at the time - but even here, the extraordinary events were broadcast live.

In communist Czechoslovakia millions of people sat glued to their radio receivers and black and white TV sets as Neil Armstrong took the most celebrated small step in history.

And there was enormous pride in the fact that the US team had picked Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony to accompany this great voyage of discovery. For people behind the Iron Curtain the US lunar landing had a political dimension as well - the Americans' Apollo mission had managed to beat the Soviets in the field of space technology- all the more reason for many Czechs to secretly rejoice, less than a year after Soviet-led troops had occupied Czechoslovakia in August 1968. No one knew at the time that this spectacular US space achievement was to be the last that people in this country would be able to follow as it unfolded. After that the censors did not let through any further news of US space successes, and news was restricted to Russia's space projects - in particular the first flight of a Czech cosmonaut into space in 1978.

However Man's first steps on the Moon remain as firmly fixed in people's memories as the day of President Kennedy's assassination. People remember exactly what they were doing at the time, who they were with, and how they felt.

Petr Jakes
Back then, the only Czech who was involved in America's Apollo mission was geologist Petr Jakes, who was part of the preliminary team which studied rock samples that the astronauts brought back to Earth.

Given that he would have been working with the Americans at the height of the Cold War, were they not a little wary of a scientist from the so-called Eastern Bloc?

"Of course, I was treated with a little bit of suspicion. In NASA all people are classified by the colour of their badges. I had a black one. That's the badge that means you're not allowed to see any confidential secret materials. Of course, I went through some security clearance, but I don't know anything about that. At that time, I didn't even have a valid passport, but it was so exciting, I was just happy to be there."

Despite the mutual mistrust generated by the Cold War, many commentators credit this international standoff with pushing lunar research forward, as the two superpowers competed for supremacy in the Space Race. Mr Jakes agrees:

"Space research was an appendix or something that was glued on to military research. The Cold War brought a lot of competition in military research. Apollo was the culmination of this. After the Cold War, the competition in Russia failed. It completely disintegrated. It has fallen to pieces there. There are no finances or no initiatives - there's almost nothing there."

By winning the race to the Moon, the US received a massive boost in terms of political capital. But besides the political gains involved, Mr Jakes feels the Apollo space missions were also of massive scientific importance:

"It was extremely great [in scientific terms]. It has contributed not only to a recognition or notion of the surface of another [celestial] body, but it has improved the quality of chemical analysis. It has improved much of the quality of isotopic dating. It has had an enormous influence on the progress of material science."

Although space research has taken a back seat since the end of the Cold War, President George Bush has recently revived interest in the subject by mooting the idea of creating lunar settlements. So does Mr Jakes think there's any point in putting Man back on the Moon?

"Oh yes, there are points, but these should only be points of research. I would call it a 'humble' type of research. But, with age, I am more sceptical. I think there are so many problems to be solved here on Earth apart from going to the Moon. But if there is enough money and initiatives, I think a new generation of scientists will materialise this research."