Friday, July 20, 2007

When the Eagle Landed

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. That was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was already a space, science, and computer nerd. I was lucky to be attending an NSF-sponsored Student Science Training Program (SSTP) at Ohio University that summer, so I watched the Apollo 11 TV coverage that day in the lounge of my dorm with a group of other high school science nerds from all over the country. Future scientists and engineers, we were all excited and inspired.

It was a great six weeks, even though I felt greatly outclassed by fellow students who attended the Bronx High School of Science and other specialized science and math programs. How I got there was sort of a fluke. Although I attended a tiny school (only 30 students in my class!), I was really interested in computers as well as in space, flying, French, math, and all sorts of other stuff. At that time, General Electric was in the mainframe computer business with some of the earliest time sharing systems. They had a program for area schools in upstate New York - if a school would get a computer terminal (really a teletype), GE would provide some free computer time for students to learn programming. Fortunately I had a math teacher who was interested in computers too, and he got the school to rent a teletype (it just occurred to me that he may have paid for this himself - my tiny, rural K-12 school was pretty poor at the time - in any case, thanks Mr. Call, you really made a difference for me!).

So my teacher and I stayed after school many afternoons learning to program in BASIC and FORTRAN, and this gave me the edge I needed to be accepted for the SSTP despite my otherwise limited math and science background. I worked that summer on FORTRAN programs for calculating molecular orbitals, which involves quantum mechanics about which I knew nearly nothing. In fact I mostly made data runs under the direction of a physical chemistry professor, investigating bond lengths and angles and such. But it was still a bit of college level science and computer work, and as it turns out, I've worked with (and played with) simulation software of various types ever since. So it was really a great opportunity for me.

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is a great Apollo 11 image. The one above is a still from the 16 mm movie camera on the LM.


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FlyingSinger said...

Thanks - that's a cool video and song (in a filkish sorta way).