When US diplomat delivered Kenyan flag, a rock from the moon

Sunday July 21 2019

 

By KAMAU NGOTHO

At about 3am (American time) 50 years ago on July 21, Neil Armstrong disembarked from the spacecraft Apollo 11 Eagle to step on the moon surface.

He made history as the first human being to do so. Nineteen minutes later, his colleague in the lunar flight, Buzz Aldrin, joined him.

In their luggage was, among other things, a miniature US flag and those of her friendly countries, Kenya included. They spent two hours and 15 minutes walking on the moon, and collecting memorabilia to bring back to Earth, which included small rocks from the place no man had ever set foot before.

Seven months later, on February 13, 1970, US Secretary of State William Rogers came to Kenya, in a first visit by an official of his rank to sub-Saharan Africa. On landing at the then Embakasi Airport in Nairobi, the visiting US top diplomat expressed delight to have landed in the “green city in the sun.” (Yes, Governor Mike Sonko, that was in reference to Nairobi at the time).

The following day, Mr Rogers travelled to President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s Gatundu residence to present him the Kenyan flag Neil Armstrong took to the moon and a piece of rock collected from the lunar surface.

In his own words

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In September 1974, the Daily Nation obtained rights to reproduce a story of the moon-landing as told by Neil Armstrong, an extract of which we reproduce:

“I began to think about what I would say when I took my first step on the moon. I had been asked many times what I intended to say, but I had put it off until now, believing that the right phrase would come to me. Perhaps I had felt it was tempting fate to plan such a thing in advance.

“We didn’t have to wait until we trod the lunar surface to find out what lunar gravity was like. I hadn’t noticed it during the descent, except perhaps subliminally, but it was right there with us in the lunar module as soon as we landed.

“I found it most pleasant, and I even preferred it to the gravity of Earth. It gave me a light floating sensation, but I was able to maintain equilibrium. We had no tendency to lose balance; we had just enough weight to stand naturally.

“In this post-touchdown period, we were getting the opportunity to acclimatise. But we were still breathing the pressurised air of the Eagle (the spacecraft). We’d not yet pressurised our suits or fitted our backpacks. This was our next task, and we took a very long time over it, checking and rechecking every move. We could not afford any mistake here.

“The surface of the moon is airless, and the daytime temperature is above 100 degrees centigrade. Our suits and backpacks, which gave us oxygen, coolant and radio, formed miniature spacecraft in themselves. They’d been fully serviceable when we left Earth, but that had been nearly five days ago. There was a feeling almost of surprise when these complex-units seemed to be functioning property.

“Now we had to depressurise the cabin. Until the pressure was equalised with the pressure outside the hatch, which was situated just below the instrument panel. This necessitated turning the cabin into a vacuum.

Primeval desolation

“In order to avoid any possibility of contaminating the moon, the air in the cabin had to be expelled through a germ-filter valve, and this seemed to take a long time. Here was another source of delay. But these delays did not matter to us. We knew what we were doing. But they caused concern to the millions who were waiting for us to emerge from the cabin. They feared that something was wrong.

“As the sun rose higher, the pale, primeval desolation outside our window looked less and less forbidding, until the grey became tinged with a tan hue for which I could find no comparison.

“A greyish cocoa was the nearest I could get to it. The surface began to look warm and inviting, reminiscent of bright sunlight on a sandy shore, and I even thought about swimsuits and sun tan. The pressure gauge indicated a vacuum. We tried to open the door. It wouldn’t move.

“There was an emergency valve, but it had no germ-filter. Instinctively I glanced at the dials and switches on the display panel fixed to my chest, which gave readings to the operation of my backpack. This was my lifeline. Oxygen, fan, coolant, pump, battery — each was vital to life.

“I opened the door fully, then turned my back on it before dropping down on my knees to squeeze through. In the low lunar gravity, with a suit that was stiff at the joints, this proved far from easy.

“Outside the door was a small platform or porch, and immediately, below the porch was one of the landing legs, to which was affixed a nine-rung ladder. I reached to the porch spread-eagled on my stomach. To fall on the moon can be as awkward as to fall on Earth so I moved carefully.

Lunar gravity

“My next task was to release a table that was mounted on the limb, dropping it down by means of a handle. On that table was the camera that would televise my descent. Also, on the table was our sampling equipment. I was still lying face down on the porch, with my legs sticking out towards the west. I couldn’t bend from the middle, so I had to swing my legs out until they overhung the ladder, and rely on lunar gravity to pull my feet down towards the top rung.

“This worked all right, and I got a firm footing and began to descend the ladder, checking my balance and mobility with each step.

“The Earth weight of my suit and backpack was about 360 pounds. It would be like trying to jump with two men on my back. In lunar gravity this would be reduced by five-sixths. I first tested the surface with my boot. I had to satisfy myself that I could get back up to the steps again. I managed it comfortably.

“It was close enough to the surface now to make a visual check of its condition, but this did not tell me very much. One school of thought had been that the surface would prove to be a fluffy coagulation of lightly welded grains of sand which might collapse under our weight.

“Results so far seemed to disprove this, but we might just have been lucky in our landing spot.

“My first step was therefore going to be cautious and hesitant, one foot on the landing pad, one foot on the surface, testing the rigidity, holding back at first, then pressing harder, but keeping one hand firmly clutched onto the ladder.

Lost items

“The thick sole of my thermal overshoe, was a measure of the temperature of the surface, damping the feeling in my foot. But I could feel my lunar weight coming on it. Flat-footed, aware of a slight give in the resistance of the surface, I slowly completed my first step.

“The surface bore my weight. Then I spoke the words I had planned.

‘That was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

“I withdrew my foot and looked at the footprint. It told me a lot. What had we learnt at this point? I felt that we had learnt a great deal. The moon was a place where man could go. The moon was a place where man could use his unique capacity for observation. These were the really great unknowns.”

This week, I made an attempt to find out the whereabouts of the miniature Kenyan flag and piece of rock from the moon that Mr Rogers brought to Kenya in 1970.

Officials at the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya who I spoke to expressed surprise that such items existed in the first place. They politely referred me to the Office of the President or State House. But with the presidency so preoccupied with the issue of who has been forging letters and leaking them to the media, I thought better than bother them about artefacts delivered to the country half a century ago — all the more complicated because the items were delivered at a private residence.

Missing items aside, Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon was good inspiration to Kenya as only a year after, the latter became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to set up an Earth Satellite Station at Longonot. And in the following year, a joint US/Italian satellite launcher facility, San Marco, opened at Malindi, during a function graced by a renown American rocket expert, Dr Von Braun.

Trump in Mars

The only other landing on the moon after the exploit by the Apollo 11 duo was to come in 1972, when US dispatched Apollo 17 to the lunar space.

Thirty years ago, the 41st US President George HW Bush promised a return to the moon, only to be distracted by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and went to war in the Arabian deserts. His son President George Bush pledged to revive the return-to-the moon dream when he became president in 2000, but all of a sudden forgot about it when Osama bin Laden tragically knocked at his door on 9/11. The next thing we heard he was in Iraq chasing Saddam Hussein, who he retrieved from a hideout in a foxhole and handed him over to a hangman.

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump not only vowed the US is soon going back to the moon, but this time round he said his country would stop at planet Mars — and with a woman cosmonaut on board.

Postscript: Forty years after Neil Armstrong took the Kenyan flag to the moon, an American with a Kenyan father was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. President Barack Obama’s father happened to have gone to the US in the early 1960s, thanks to efforts of US President John F Kennedy, who is credited for America’s adventure to the moon.

Just before taking power, the Russians had beaten the Americans to the tape by sending the first ever unmanned satellite to the moon, which inspired the youthful US president to one-up the Russians by sending a man to the moon.

kamngotho@yahoo.com