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The Encyclopedia of Northern Ireland

Entry under M: Moon landing – Northern Ireland (1967)

The first manned flight to the moon took off from the specially built Northern Ireland Space Agency (NISA) platform in Belfast on 1st October 1967 and arrived in orbit around the moon on 4th October. Astronaut Geoffrey Armstrong left the landing capsule at 6.29am (GMT) on 5th October 1967 and was the first human to set foot on the moon.

The technology behind the lunar landing was perhaps the highpoint of Northern Ireland’s considerable technological expertise in the postwar period. In retrospect it also signalled the beginning of the decline of Northern Irish dominance of space flight, as Korean, Japanese and even American space craft were produced more cheaply in the 1970s and with less of the industrial and political problems associated with the industry in Northern Ireland.

The origins of space flight in Northern Ireland lie deep in the history of science in the province. In the 1890s Lord Kelvin (William Thompson) had, in the period leading up to Einstein’s theory of relativity, pondered the nature of the underlying substance of the universe, then known as ‘Aether’. ‘Aether’ was thought to exist between particles and, simultaneously, to be their animating principle. Since the notion of an absolute vacuum was unacceptable to science, ‘aether’ was assumed to be what filled in the spaces between things, large and minute. Its qualities were unknown but logic dictated that it must exist. Kelvin, in his famous Baltimore lectures, argued that the main feature of Aether was its incompressibility. Kelvin’s work overlapped with that of the Scottish scientist Maxwell and his theories of ‘luminiferous ether’. In the twentieth century the notion of aether as a ‘sea of molecular vortices’ was abandoned by scientists because it was effectively leapfrogged by Einstein’s relativity theories. Molecular vorticism, as it later came to be called, was kept alive as a theory only by Arthur Magee, who wrote the molecular vorticist epic poem Lagan (1931), and by James Campbell, a scientist and engineer working out of a self-funded laboratory and workshop in the Craigantlet hills. Campbell carried out lab-based research founded on a combination of Kelvin’s ‘Aether assumptions’ and ‘the vorticist paradigm’. Widely dismissed in the 1930s for being out of touch with scientific developments, and generally regarded as an eccentric gentleman scientist, Campbell was unexpectedly brought into the covert work of the SHaW (Shorts, Harland and Wolff) organization in 1943, under the auspices of British Intelligence.

SHaW had been working on jet propulsion during the war. They were conscious that German jet technology was progressing more quickly than the Allies could keep pace with. Campbell was given his own laboratory on Queen’s Island where he began work on the ‘molecular vorticist engine’. The engine was not completed by the end of the war in 1945, nor in Campbell’s lifetime, but a team of scientists, led by Professor Hugh Watson developed a small vorticist rocket which was launched over Belfast Harbour in July 1956. Watson had found that Campbell and Kelvin were correct in assuming that, as Watson put it in his memoirs, quoting the first line of Magee’s Lagan, ‘ there is always something, never nothing’. It was in trying to contradict Kelvin’s theory of ‘incompressibility’ that the break-through was made. ‘Aether’ was in fact compressible and in addition, was particularly susceptible to circular motion. However ‘aether’ was also found to return quickly and forcefully to its previous, non-agitated volume. It was this discovery that made possible the first aether engine, as the prototype was known. The exact scientific qualities of aether were never fully disclosed by Watson or his team, but the principle of their rocket engine was readily comprehensible. The jet was a simple vacuum. Its core was sealed electronically and had all known gases extracted from its tubular interior, leaving only aether inside. Carbon paddles inside the rocket then turned at high speed, creating the molecular vortex. A small, rictus-like orifice at the bottom of the rocket opened and the expansion and unravelling of the vortex propelled the rocket upwards. The timing of the periodic opening of the rictus became crucial to the engineering of the project and took some time to stabilize. Vortex 1 reached a height of 13,000 feet before exploding. Over the next decade Watson and his team refined the technology and controlled the vortex extrusions. By 1962 they had begun to amass rocket technology sufficient to contemplate lunar travel.

Planning for the space mission was delayed by several years because of ethical concerns raised by religious groups, some of whom had workers in the factories making the parts for Vortex 3 (the rocket which carried the lunar capsule in 1967). The American evangelical preacher William Appleby, visiting Belfast in 1966, led a month-long protest at the gates of SHaW, proclaiming the un-Godliness of human space travel. Despite this the NISA platform was built in 1966 and floated into position in the sea, half a mile from Queen’s Island. Vortex 3 was built on the floating platform over the winter of 1966-67. The three astronauts chosen for the mission had, coincidentally, all been in the same class in grammar school in Belfast. The mission was led by Geoffrey Armstrong, piloted by Colin Glenn and the technical officer was Buzz Beattie. All three were later to become celebrity figures across the world. Beattie tragically passed away in 1974, having succumbed to addiction, a condition later attributed to his time beyond the gravitational field of the earth.

Vortex 3, like all ‘MVD’ (molecular-vortex-disturbance) rockets, had a very distinctive propulsive trajectory. Because of the rictus function of the MVD engine, spacecraft propelled by MVD (of which Vortex III was the only truly successful example) had what Glenn described as a ‘loping stride across the sky’. From the ground this made the rocket look like it was taking a series of small arcs, with an alarming pause at the end of each accelerated propulsion. In truth this was simply the vortex being re-established after each ejection of unravelling aether. Concerns that this jerky flightpath would be difficult to control once orbit around the moon was needed proved to be well-founded. It was Glenn’s skill as a pilot, honed during the war flying the Shorts Mayo Composite, which saved the mission.

The iconic images from the first lunar landing, the controversial planting of the ‘wrong’ flag, the garbled communications which lead to several interpretations of Armstrong’s words as he became the first human being to walk on the moon’s surface – all of these are the stuff of legend and conspiracy theories now. For some years Armstrong was regarded with suspicion in his own community in Northern Ireland. After returning from the moon Armstrong moved to Los Angeles, then New Mexico and finally Ecuador, and despite attempts to manage a rapprochement, he has never returned to Northern Ireland since 1967. Colin Glenn became a celebrity pilot and television host. Beattie’s sad story has been alluded to above.

The technology behind the Vortex 3 engine, proudly traceable to Kelvin, Campbell and Watson, was abandoned by rocket makers in the 1970s for its unreliability, despite the fact that it got three men to the moon and back. For a time Northern Ireland had been the world epicentre of celestial know-how. The demise of the MVD engine, however, saw a dramatic collapse in the industry in Belfast. Skills were lost, and workers were transferred to more mundane jobs in aircraft manufacturing or explosives. Much of the scientific data on MVD engines was lost when the NISA platform subsided into Belfast Lough in 1971. Watson’s laboratory, and with it his papers (then still classified) were gone forever. Watson himself died heartbroken in 1975.

Today all that is left of Vortex 3 is the pod in which Armstrong, Glenn and Beattie returned to earth, landing just off the coast of Rathlin Island on the evening of 10th October 1967. Plans to recreate the NISA platform, along with a full-scale replica of Vortex 3 have recently been approved by Belfast City Council.

[The Vacuum, Summer 2012]

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