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Do meet your heroes: Don Pollaco on the day he met Neil Armstrong

footprint on the moon
Professor Don Pollaco has the job most kids want - he finds planets for a living. He has been a research scientist in astrophysics for 33 years and his interest in space was originally inspired by watching the moon landings with his dad.
So when he was asked to talk to a group of visiting VIPs the observatory on La Palma, where the University of Warwick has several research telescopes, he was stunned to find himself face to face with Neil Armstrong.
In a personal blog, written originally in 2013, Professor Pollaco describes the initial awkward moments during the life-changing evening when he met his hero.

As I regularly work in the Observatory at the Roque de Los Muchachos on La Palma, I have developed strong relationships with some of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC) management there.

During June 2011 I was asked if I was interested in going out for a meal with some VIP’s. It was only when I arrived on the Island I was informed who they were: the surviving Apollo astronauts, cosmonauts and a sprinkle of Nobel Prize winners. They were taking part in a conference organized at the IAC partly by Dr Brian May on life in the universe and human endevours in space (Starmus). Mid-way through the week the group came to La Palma for a round table discussion from the observing floor of the large telesco-pe there and this was broadcast over the internet.

For some reason, which I still don’t understand, the events of that night have subsequently changed my life.

Like many people in their fifties. I spent my formative years watching the space race unfold and sat mesmerized watching Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts leaping around on the moon. I remember my father getting me out of bed during the night to watch the first moon walk – this was real history and I saw it happen.

Move forward 41 years and here I was, an astronomer, meeting the “heroes” of my youth. In front of me where the now eighty-something year-olds that had unknowingly helped shape my life. I am never “star” struck and very rarely lost for words, but this situation really knocked me sideways. After all, what do you say to the modern day equivalent of Christopher Columbus?

I knew enough of Mr Armstrong to know of his reclusive and extremely modest character. Anyway during the meal I sat next to Jill Tarter (SETI and said to be the character that Jodi Foster played in Contact) and a couple of Nobel Prize winners with which I made nervous small talk. After the meal I decided I would never forgive myself if I didn’t say something to Mr Armstrong. Taking a path that must have been trod by millions of others I approached Mr Armstrong – the good news is I didn’t ask him “What was it like to walk on the moon?”, but instead I told him how in my view the Apollo programme had inspired so many people. His response was typical of the man: “Yes, I’ve been told that”, clearly giving nothing of his own views. I felt like a child (again).

Later that evening I was asked to show some of our guests “the stars”. So I went outside with my friend Max Alexander (the official photographer for the party) and I showed a group of two people the Kepler field and talked enthusiastically about exoplanets in general. During this conversation I became aware that I was with Mr Armstrong and the more outgoing Mr Lovell. After a few minutes the four of us started a much more relaxed discussion and in response to my question about the far side of the moon the two astronauts became animated and joked about the best thing being the lack of nagging from mission control when on the far side. Lovell talked about the difficulty of guiding on stars whilst moving in the Apollo 13 debris, and Armstrong about the Eagles’s decent.

Pinch me.

We continued to laugh and joke for an hour or more. Later I met others eg Charlie Duke and Alexi Leonov.

OK, so these eighty-year-old guys were not the same as those I remember leaping about on the moon but I learnt a lot from them – I learnt about myself.

After the event my news travelled around many of my colleagues in the astronomical community. I received three or four emailed from people of my own age (with no doubt similar histories) telling me how Apollo had influenced them and how they wish they could have been on La Palma at that time. It was as if by sharing their stories with me they would share my encounter with the astronauts.

Since that evening I have just obsessed about the Apollo and early space programmes reading everything I can find about those non-PC times and the risks these people took for their love of flying.

By the way if any of you have the opportunity to stay at the Residencia at the Roque de Los Muchachos, ask for room 106 – you will have stayed in the room that Neil Amstrong stayed in!

Don Pollacco

Originally written: 14 September 2013

Published:

13 July 2020

About:

The Astronomy and Astrophysics group at Warwick is interested in a huge range of scales across the Universe: planetary systems, how they form, live and die; stars, stellar binaries and and the exotic physical processes that they allow us to explore; as well as the transient events which mark the end of stellar lifetimes and the galaxies stars inhabit across the Universe. The group started in September 2003 and is both an observational and theoretical group. The group makes use of a wide range of ground-based telescopes, such as ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (ING) in the Canary Islands, or the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), as well as space telescopes such as NASA's Chandra and ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Warwick astro group partners in the four large spectroscopic surveys (DESI, SDSS-V, WEAVE, and 4MOST) that will start operations throughout 2020-2021.

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