When will we go back to the Moon?

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. It remains one of the great moments in human history, but what happened next? At the time, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I assumed that it would only be a few years before humans reached Mars. Half a century later, it sill hasn’t happened.

Six more missions to the Moon followed Apollo XI, of which only the drama of Apollo XIII and the survival of Jim Lovell and his crew made any kind of headlines. A total of twelve people – all men – walked on the Moon. Of the twelve, four are still alive including Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82. Apollo XVII – the last lunar mission – returned to Earth on 19 December 1972, and no spacecraft carrying a crew has since left Earth orbit.

The exploration of the Solar System has been carried out purely through robot space probes. By 1969, American and Soviet probes had flown past Venus and Mars, returning data and – in the case of Mars – a few low-resolution images. Since then, space probe have reached every planet in the Solar System (including Pluto), with long-duration orbital missions of all the planets out to Saturn, and the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. There have been landings on Mars, Venus, Titan, and several asteroids and comets. There have been active rovers on Mars since 2004. At the beginning of this year, the New Horizons probe returned photographs from the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule.

But in comparison to the 1960s, human activities in space have progressed at a snail’s pace. The Russians never went to the Moon and turned their attention to space stations in low Earth orbit, which in the long term was more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States. The MIR space station was in service from 1986 to 2000, and was permanently occupied between February 1990 and August 1999. There has been a permanent human presence in space in the International Space Station since November 2000.

Much of the technology of 2019 was certainly science-fiction in 1969 – computers have evolved from room-filling machines affordable only by large companies to mundane household appliances. Much of the gadgetry from the original series of Star Trek – which made its way over here from the States a fortnight before the first Moon Landing – seems quite primitive compared with present-day smartphones, iPads, and the like.

So what of crew-carrying spacecraft? The Russian Soyuz, which first flew in 1967, is still in service. The Chinese Shenzhou – currently the only other crew-carrying spacecraft in service – is based heavily on Soyuz technology. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has been without the means to launch humans into space, and is having to thumb lifts from the Russians to the ISS. This will change when the privately operated SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner spacecraft come into service later this year.

To date, only the US, Russia, and China have sent humans into space, although citizens of forty countries have flown in space. India plans to launch a crew-carrying spacecraft in December 2021. No other nation currently has plans for an indigenous human spaceflight program.

American plans for an expedition to Mars have come and gone over the years. The Orion program, instigated by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster, has yet to fly with a crew. More recently, the Artemis program has a stated goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. Proposals include the Lunar Orbital Platform – a space station in lunar orbit, from which landers will take humans to the surface.

The Russians are working on similar proposals with a timescale for the 2030s and a Soyuz replacement known as Federation. Presumably this name-checks the Russian Federation (as Soyuz did the Soviet Union) rather than Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The Chinese are reviewing preliminary plans for a lunar expedition in the 2030s.

Ten years ago, I expressed the hope that I would live long enough to see humans land on Mars, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.

The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and – no less important – before the Russians. The program was criticised because of the many problems back on Earth. Sadly, these problems have not gone away. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, but it was no more than a brief thaw in East-West relations. It is now clear that geopolitical competition rather than communism vs capitalism lies at the root of the hostility.

The international situation now – eighteen years after 9/11 – is as bad as it has been in my lifetime. Worldwide, the rise of the populist Right continues unchecked. Here in the UK, we have had almost a decade of Tory-inflicted austerity following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the last three years has been dominated by the incompetent shambles of Brexit. Yet these problems are inconsequential compared to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on space. At minimum, self-sustaining colonies on Mars and the Moon would increase the chances of our survival as a species. I won’t be around in another fifty years time, but I can only hope that by the time we reach the centenary of Apollo XI the world is in a better state than it is now and humanity is firmly established as a multi-planet species.

Lunar eclipse 21 January 2019

Weather thwarted attempts to obtain photographs of what will be the last total lunar eclipse visible from Britain until 16 May 2022. Good conditions prevailed until about 15 mins before the onset of totality, when the Moon disappeared into the clouds never to return.

I obtained a good shot of the uneclipsed Moon, and subsequent shots at around 40 percent and 80 percent totality. The so-called ‘blood moon’ effect was not visible, and the 80 percent shot looks very little different to an ordinary crescent Moon.

Perigee full moon

The reasonably common phenomenon of full Moon coinciding perigee was completely ignored until the media discovered the term ‘supermoon’ a few years ago, Perigee (minimum distance from Earth) varies between 356400 and 370400 km (average 362600 km) and apogee (maximum distance from Earth) varies between 404000 and 406700 km(average 405400 km), so on average a perigee full Moon will appear 12 percent larger and 25 percent brighter than one occurring at apogee.

However, perigee on 14 November will be the closest one since 1948, and the Moon will appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter compared with the smallest apogee full Moon. This still isn’t an enormous difference, and prior to the current frenzy over ‘supermoons’ was only of interest to astronomers. Here in Britain, of course, we are in any case set to see absolutely nothing.

One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You’re looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it’s looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light’s on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that’s good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I’m going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That’s a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM the Queen. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more manned missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single manned spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him “a coward, a liar, and a thief.” Aldrin – then aged 72 – punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city’s prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to unmanned space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009


In 1965, as the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was hotting up, officials at NASA realised that they did not have “space rated” wristwatch that could be used for the upcoming Project Gemini. Given that the program was slated to include an EVA or space walk, there was an obvious need for a watch that could withstand exposure to vacuum and other rigours of spaceflight. In addition to being able to keep good time under such conditions, the watch would have to incorporate a chronograph or stop-watch function, so astronauts could see at a glance how long they had spent outside their spacecraft and to help carry out other tasks that required accurate timing.

Rather than go through the time consuming procedure of inviting bids for a “space watch”, NASA decided to send a couple of engineers to out to downtown Houston with instructions to procure a variety of off-the-shelf chronographs for testing. The tests included exposure to extreme temperatures, vacuum, intense humidity, shock, acceleration, pressure and vibration. At the end of the tests, NASA had a clear winner as the watch most suitable for spaceflight: the Omega Speedmaster.

The Speedmaster was first introduced by in 1957 and utilised the Lemania 2310 (AKA Omega 321) manual-wind movement. It is often stated that NASA specified a manual-wind movement because they thought automatic (“self-winding”) movements would not function in zero-gravity conditions, but this is incorrect on two counts. Firstly an automatic works by inertia and is not dependent on gravity; secondly the simple reason NASA selected a manual-wind chronograph is that at the time that was the only type available. The first automatic chronograph movement – the Zenith el Primero – did not come into use until near the end of the decade. However it is likely that in the cramped conditions of a Gemini or Apollo spacecraft, there would be insufficient activity to keep an automatic fully wound and a manual-wind would be more suitable.

On 3 June 1965, Gemini 4 pilot Edward White became the first US astronaut to make a spacewalk. He was wearing an Omega Speedmaster, strapped to the outside of his spacesuit with a Velcro strap. Curiously it was not until almost a year later that Omega finally learned the use to which NASA had been putting their watches. As might be expected, they wasted little time in cashing in and photographs of White’s spacewalk were soon featuring in their advertising literature. The watch itself was renamed the Speedmaster Professional, but its finest hour was yet to come.

Early on the morning of 21 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the surface of the Moon wearing a Speedmaster Professional, which thus became the first watch to be worn on the Moon. Earlier, Neil Armstrong had had to leave his own watch in the Eagle lunar module after the lander’s onboard chronometer developed a malfunction. Sadly this historic watch was later stolen while on loan to the Smithsonian and has never been recovered.

In April the following year a Speedmaster Professional was used to time a crucial engine burn aboard the crippled Apollo XIII during the desperate and ultimately successful endeavour to return the spacecraft safely to Earth.

Meanwhile feeling was growing that an American watch should be used on NASA moon missions and the US-owned Bulova company lobbied the White House for their watches to be used instead of the “Speedy Pro”. Eventually NASA was persuaded to test a fresh batch of watches, including a specially-manufactured Bulova chronograph, but the Omega again came out on top with the Bulova stopping several times during testing.

By now, not only NASA was equipping its astronauts with the Speedmaster Professional. In 1975, when an Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused with a Soviet Soyuz in Earth orbit, both crews were wearing what had by now become known as the Moonwatch.

In 1978 NASA held a fresh series of tests ahead of the Space Shuttle program. Once again the Speedmaster Professional triumphed. The watch had by now received an updated movement, the Lemania 1873 (AKA Omega 861), which featured a shuttle/cam system rather than a column-wheel. The former design is simpler and thus is cheaper to both manufacture and service, but it yields nothing in terms of performance and reliability. The 1873 is again a manual-wind movement.

Externally however the Speedmaster Professional has changed very little in over half a century, even retaining its old-fashioned Hessalite (plexiglass) crystal in preference to a modern scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. This has been at the request of NASA. Plexiglass scratches quite easily, but it is virtually indestructible. By contrast, a sharp blow can shatter a sapphire crystal. Having sapphire fragments floating about inside the zero-g environment of a spacecraft is obviously not a good idea! A sapphire version, also featuring a sapphire display back, is available at extra cost but many enthusiasts prefer the Hessalite model, which is the only flight-qualified version.

The Speedy Pro is certainly not the only watch to go into space (and was probably not even the only watch worn on the Moon – contra Omega’s website), but even now it is the only watch permitted to be used for EVAs from the International Space Station or from the Space Shuttle. The Casio G-Shock – a watch almost as iconic as the Speedy – is routinely worn aboard the ISS, but because their batteries may explode in a vacuum, they cannot be used for spacewalking.

Who knows, the Omega Speedmaster Professional may even eventually become known as the Marswatch.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

The End is Nigh!

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) & Crack in the World (1965)

During the 1960s, the Bomb, as it was simply known, held very much the same place in public consciousness as global warming does today. The fear of nuclear war was very real and even though the Cuban Missile Crisis had shown that the US and USSR could pull back from the brink, there remained the possibility that a nuclear war could be started by accident. Hollywood’s output reflected this fear with Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove and the documentary-styled Failsafe, both released in 1964.

The possibility that mankind might be placed in peril simply by the testing of nuclear weapons or indeed by an attempt to make benign use of them was less prominent in the public imagination; nevertheless this sub-genre gave rise to two excellent “doomsday” movies: the British-made The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and the US-made Crack in the World (1965).

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an offbeat but smart piece of movie-making. It was directed and produced by the late Val Guest, who also directed the first two screen-adaptations of the Quatermass series. Screenplay was also by Guest, in conjunction with Wolf Mankowitz. The film starred Janet Monroe, Leo McKern and Edward Judd, and featured former Daily Express editor Arthur Christansen playing himself. It was filmed in black and white, with some orange-tinted sequences.

The tinted opening of the movie shows journalist and reformed alcoholic Peter Stenning (Judd) making his way down a deserted, heat-baked Fleet Street to the Daily Express building, to cover what may well be the last news story ever. Four nuclear devices, the most powerful yet devised, have just been detonated in an attempt to push the Earth back into its proper orbit. It is too early yet to tell if the attempt has been successful.

Reverting to conventional b/w, the main section of the movie then tells the story of the events of the previous 90 days, beginning with near-simultaneous bomb tests by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the days that follow, earthquakes and freak weather conditions occur in many parts of the world, and a total eclipse of the sun is seen in London ten days before it was due. Soon after, the whole world begins to experience heat-wave conditions. London experiences thick fog, followed by violent storms.

These events are seen through the eyes of Stenning and fellow journalist Bill Maguire (McKern). Stenning’s relationships with his ex-wife (who left him for another man), his son and new love Jeannie Craig (Monroe) are skilfully worked into the story, forming an integral part of the narrative drive. Encouraged by Editor Arthur Christiansen (himself), Stenning and Maguire, with assistance from Craig, eventually expose a government cover-up. The bombs have caused an eleven-degree shift in the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The Prime Minister goes on the air to reassure the public that the Earth’s axial tilt has altered in the past without catastrophic effects, and that things will eventually settle down.

But temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Water rationing is brought in and the Thames dries up. Eventually Christiansen learns from a Russian correspondent that that the bomb tests have also affected the Earth’s orbit, and it is moving towards the Sun. With doomsday just four months away, the Prime Minister goes on the air again to inform the public that the heads of governments world-wide have decided that the only hope for mankind is to detonate four very large nuclear bombs, in order to reverse the motion towards the Sun. Meanwhile, law and order is breaking down. People are coming down with typhoid from contaminated bootleg water and bottles of Coca Cola are fetching four pounds (about £80 at today’s prices). A street party held the night before the corrective bombs are detonated gets out of hand and rioting breaks out.

The countdown is broadcast to an anxiously-waiting world by radio, by loudspeakers set up in the streets of cities around the world, and by producer-gas fuelled police cars on the streets of London. Stenning, Maguire and Craig follow events from the Old Bell, Fleet Street [a pub in which I have spent many hours!] and the bombs are detonated, through the only immediate effect is a that cloud of dust is shaken up. Stenning begs Maguire to let him cover the story.

The story returns to the tinted “frame” that began the film. Stenning dictates his copy, his typewriter having seized up. A camera pans between two versions of tomorrow’s front page, ready to go to press. One reads “World Saved”, the other “World Doomed”. Several shots show clocks, both inside and outside the building, each showing a later time than the last, suggesting the passage of time. Church bells ring out across the City of London, implying that the Earth was saved.

It has been suggested that the church bells were added at the insistence of the distributer, and Guest intended a completely open ending. In a director’s commentary to the DVD edition, he does not mention the ending. Val Guest died in 2006, aged 94.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the definitive “cult movie”, a term that should be reserved for movies that punch above their weight, while delivering what they set out to deliver. This film does just that: in addition to the intelligent screenplay, the special effects belie the small budget, especially the scenes where Thames dries up. Londoners will particularly appreciate the location filming around the capital.

The film is not without some “bad science”, however. Nuclear bombs could not possibly affect the Earth’s orbit. A major meteorite impact, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, would be many times more powerful than the world’s combined nuclear arsenals, but it would have a negligible effect on the orbit. Indeed, anything powerful enough to affect the Earth’s orbit to the extent implied by the film would almost certainly destroy the planet at the outset.

A solar eclipse can only take place at New Moon and one occurring ten days early would not happen without warning, as it would be apparent for days in advance that something was seriously wrong with the Moon’s phases. Four days before the eclipse, the Moon would have been seen as a waning crescent when it should still have been full. This would be noticed by astronomers and indeed any casual observer in possession of a diary or calendar. The anomaly would certainly have been picked up at a newspaper, where the current phase of the Moon is often published with sunrise and sunset times.

A eleven degree alteration of the Earth’s axial tilt would significantly alter sunrise and sunset times around the world, and postions of constellations in the night sky. Again, this would be widely noticed almost immediately.

Made four years later, Crack in the World is a more orthodox SF/disaster movie. It starred Dana Andrews, Janette Scott, Keiron Moore and Alexander Knox. The screenplay was by John Manchip White and Julian Zimet. The film was shot on location in Spain and its memorable score was composed by Johnny Douglas.

Project Inner Space is an international effort to tap geothermal energy by drilling down to the Earth’s mantle, but attempts are being frustrated by a layer of dense material lying at the boundary between it and the crust above. The project’s director, cancer sufferer Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Andrews) wants to use an atomic bomb to blast through the obstruction, and a government team headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Knox) travels to the Project’s site, a massive complex two miles underground, to consider Sorenson’s plan. This is supported by nearly all the Project’s scientists, including Sorenson’s wife Dr. Maggie Sorenson (Scott). The one dissenter is Maggie’s former lover Dr. Ted Rampion (Moore), who has developed a “Rampion Theory” that the Earth’s crust has already been seriously weakened by underground nuclear testing, and that Sorenson’s plan would trigger a global catastrophe.

Despite Rampion’s objections, the attempt goes ahead but shortly before it does Sorenson learns that his illness is terminal. However he bravely keeps this knowledge to himself. The bomb does blast through the obstruction, and magma bubbles to the surface. All appears to be well, and Rampion happily concedes that he was wrong.

However a series of earthquakes begin to occur along a (fictitious) geological flaw in the Earth’s crust known as the Macedo Fault. Many of the places affected have no history of seismic disturbance. Rampion and his assistant Steele take a DSV to investigate an underwater portion of the fault and determines that a spreading crack has opened up in the Earth’s crust. If a way of stopping the rupture isn’t found, the Earth will be torn apart.

Sorenson and Rampion put aside their differences and try to come up with a solution. They decide the best hope of averting disaster is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the shaft of an active volcano that lies in the path of the spreading crack. Rampion and Steele volunteer for the difficult assignment of lowering the bomb into the volcanic shaft.

The bomb is successfully placed, though Steele falls to his death in the volcano’s magma chamber, and Rampion is almost barbecued alive. Believing him to be dead, Maggie Sorenson is distraught. Still unaware how seriously ill her husband is, her affections are drifting back to Rampion. However, the latter is only unconscious and rapidly recovers. The bomb goes off and the earthquakes appear to cease.

Relief is short-lived. Soon reports come in that suggest that the crack has simply switched direction, and appears to be doubling back on itself. To make matters worse, it is now moving twice as fast. As Rampion speaks to Sorenson by R/T, the latter collapses – it is finally apparent that he seriously ill. The group returns to the Project, where Maggie learns her husband has just days to live. Despite her renewed feelings for Rampion, she is grief-stricken. However she accompanies Rampion in a jeep on a trip to investigate a second crack that has appeared near the Project complex [where exactly this is located is never revealed]. Meanwhile, Sorenson determines that the two cracks will meet at the original borehole, and that a portion of the Earth will be blasted away into space to form a new moon.

On the surface, Rampion and Maggie Sorenson desperately try to stop a train that is heading straight towards the crack, but the jeep goes into a ditch. The train fails to stop and a bridge it is travelling over collapses. There are no survivors.

After freeing the jeep, the pair return to the Project, which is being evacuated. There is a dramatic shot of two converging cracks. Nobody has seen Sorenson, so Rampion and Maggie take the elevator down into the by-now quake-torn complex to look for him. They find him preparing to record the birth of Earth’s new moon. He points out that the Project is located outside the area that will be blasted into space, locks himself in and refuses to leave. Rampion and Maggie Sorenson head back to the surface, but the elevator becomes jammed by a quake. They manage to climb to the surface and reach safety just as the two cracks meet. A colossal explosion blasts the new moon into space, at the same time acting as a safety valve to prevent any further earthquakes. Calm returns and the old Moon and its new sibling are seen in the sky together for the first time.

The science in Crack in the World is well thought out, but became dated soon after the film’s release as the theory of plate tectonics became widely accepted. There are in fact many “cracks in the world”, corresponding to the tectonic plates that slide over each other to cause continental drift.

The theory that the Moon was spun off from the Earth was first put forward by Sir George Darwin (son of Charles) in the 19th Century and was strongly supported by the American astronomer William Pickering, who suggested that the Atlantic basin had been formed as a result. However the angular momentum of a system so formed would not correspond to that of the actual Earth-Moon system, so the theory had to be abandoned.

Dated though the science is, it is certainly on another level to the ludicrous Core (2003).

For some reason, Crack in the World has never been released on DVD. It is strongly to be hoped that this omission will be rectified in the near future.

In recent years, there has been a trend for remaking classic movies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Crack in the World would both be excellent candidates for a remake. Although both films are rooted in ‘Sixties fears about the Bomb, they additionally tap into two highly-topical themes – climate change and emission-free energy.

© Christopher Seddon 2008