Sir Patrick Moore’s contribution to the 1969 moon landing

PUBLISHED: 12:07 15 August 2019

The Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux, the site where Sir Patrick Moore did some of his moon mapping (Photo: Grassroots Groundswell)

The Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux, the site where Sir Patrick Moore did some of his moon mapping (Photo: Grassroots Groundswell)


On 20 July 1969 the eyes of the world were focused on the heavens. Playing his part was a self-confessed amateur astronomer from Sussex

The late Sir Patrick Moore's contribution to getting a man on the moon was much more than just his television commentary on the Apollo missions for the BBC between 1968 and 1972.

From an early age the former Sky at Night presenter was fascinated by the Moon. In his 2003 autobiography Eighty Not Out he credits an 1898 book by GF Chambers - The Story of the Solar System - for his interest in astronomy, but it was his first book, 1952's Guide to the Moon, which set him on course for his eventual career as a figurehead of popular science and beloved eccentric. As he revealed in a 2007 article for the BBC Sky at Night magazine he was going against the grain: "When I became fascinated by astronomy at the age of six (in 1929), professional astronomers paid little attention to the Moon which was widely regarded as boring despite its undoubted beauty."

As most maps of the Moon were created by amateurs he decided to make one from his own observations, saving up £7.10s to buy a 3in refractor telescope. After a year creating his first map he began, in his own words, "to attempt something which might possibly be useful" which led to creations which would eventually be used by astronauts and scientists planning the first missions to the Moon.

In 1948, using a 12 ½in reflector telescope at his then home in East Grinstead, he discovered a feature not found on official maps, which he called the Mare Orientale (the Eastern Sea) - a name it still has. It was the edge of a huge ringed structure, almost all of which was permanently invisible from Earth. It was only when the Russian unmanned spacecraft Lunik 3 got the first direct views of the hidden side of the Moon in 1959 did we get a fuller picture of his discovery.

The Russians were using lunar maps which Sir Patrick had helped create as a junior partner with Welsh astronomer Percy Wilkins. In a documentary, filmed for the BBC in the 1990s and now available on YouTube, Sir Patrick revealed part of this work had taken place at the Royal Greenwich Observatory's site at Herstmonceux. "I have a tremendous affection for it," he said of the observatory leading a camera team around some of its unusual naval-inspired design features and sharing memories of his time there. He recalled: "I used to arrive here late at night on my ancient motorcycle. I used to spend hours at the eyepiece wearing my old flying jacket to keep out the cold, charting lunar features, making drawings and maps."

Sir Patrick retained close links to Herstmonceux. He tried to get the 98in Isaac Newton reflector re-erected at the observatory after it was moved to La Palma in the 1970s, and helped organise the campaign to stop the Royal Greenwich Observatory from being moved to Cambridge in 1986 after 30 years in Sussex. Sadly, despite objections, the move was made, followed by the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1998. It was an episode which rankled. As Sir Patrick pithily put it: "RGO-RIP: founded by Charles II in 1675, destroyed by Sir Humphrey Appleby in 1998".

Later in life Sir Patrick downplayed his role in the moon landings, describing himself as a minor figure producing work which is "now completely obsolete". As he said in his Sky at Night feature: "Today any well-equipped amateur, using modern electronic devices, can produce results completely beyond me, either then or now."

But not everyone thought so. Presenting Sir Patrick with a BAFTA award in 2002, astronaut Buzz Aldrin said: "Patrick's special subject has always been the Moon, he has named some features on it and has provided maps. In 1959 he was able to bring viewers the first direct pictures of the far side of the Moon. Incidentally it was his lunar charts that the Russians used to correlate this new information. And again it was some of Patrick's records that NASA used in the early Apollo landings."

Sir Patrick died in Selsey in 2012, but his influence on popular science and putting a man on the moon should not be forgotten.


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