Apollo 11 and a Football Pitch

Apollo 11 Astronaut Routes Superimposed on Football Pitch

You might remember this map – showing the walking routes of the Apollo 11 astronauts superimposed onto a standard-sized football pitch. On MTMG previously

The original map is actually taken from one of NASA’s own excellent sites – here – but still everyone treated it as something of a joke.

Not so. Astonishingly, this turns out to have been deliberate. You might want to reimagine the pitch with gridiron markings – or not, as NASA was laced through with Germans, Brits and other footballing nations (a thriving USA footballing culture was felled by the 1929 Crash, and wouldn’t get back onto its feet until a few years after Tranquility Base).

Not only deliberate – but it yields one of those occasional stories of blogging serendipity, perhaps the best one ever. Robert Krulwich had written about Apollo 11, wondering why the astronauts hadn’t ventured further than about 90 yards from the lander.  He used the map above in his post, and another which superimposed the astronauts’ routes onto a baseball pitch (which is worth a look: the fit is eerily close).

Neil Armstrong wrote to him the next day, at length, to explain. Well, beat that!

Dear Mr. Krulwich

I was delighted to read your December 7 column on the the Apollo 11 lunar surface traverses, The NASA maps do accurately portray the locations of the pathways used to complete the myriad of tasks we were assigned. And, although I have not checked, I believe the comparison with the size of athletic fields is reasonably accurate.

You asked: “Who knew?”

The answer to that question is: Just about anyone who had any interest in learning the answer. The plan for the lunar surface work was widely distributed and we even did a full dress rehearsal for the press at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Read the rest. My interpretation of it is this: the astronauts, many of them fine high school athletes in their day, would have possessed an instinctive feel for the confines of football and baseball pitches. Distance was very hard to calculate by sight on the moon – dangerously so on later missions which went further – and so, one way or another, NASA took deliberate, conscious advantage of that inbuilt “feel” for the 50 yard, 100 yard lengths that players take from football, rugby, American football or baseball.

This is the first age in human history to have, in football and in space travel, two things more exciting than war. It’s a good thing, and delightful – in that very English sense – to see them come together like this.

Of course, the first sport to be played in space was not football – although Apollo 11 counts as the first pitch inspection to take place away from Earth. Golfer Alan Shepherd, playing with partner Edgar Mitchell, was superbly first on Apollo 14, and look at this way: at least they were quorate, even if the greens, had they reached them, would have been less than satisfactory.

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