Step on the Moon

This coming Wednesday it will be 50-years since the last human footstep was made on our Moon. On 11th December 1972, Apollo 17 arrived on the surface of the Moon. Although 10 Apollo missions were planned to step on our Moon only 6 were made. The last man on the Moon left on 14th December 1972. Eugene Cernan was the astronaut who made that last footprint[1].

This last week, I listened to an online lecture called: “Return to the Moon: “Apollo” for a new generation”. Professor Craig Underwood gave that lecture[2] at Surrey University. He reflected on the success of the Apollo moon landing missions between 1969 and 1972.

Just as he did it gave me cause to reflect on the impact that space adventure had on my boyhood self. Those years from age 9 to 12 must have had a profound impact on not only Eugene Cernan but Professor Underwood and me. We each became electrical engineers.

We became captivated by the unbounded capacity of engineering to change the world around us. It’s true that’s a double-edged sword in that both positive and negative transformations can occur. Notably, we can see that with the current use of airborne drones. On the one hand they can be used to deliver medical supplies on the other hand they can deliver devastation in war.

Here in the UK, we have a lot to thank Gerry Anderson[3] too. The creator of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Joe 90, UFO and Space:1999 had a market impact on both the Professor and me. Colourful fantasy it may have all been, but those stories captured the imagination a generation.

The British TV series UFO and Space:1999 envisioned a permanently stationed Moon base. The leaps of the imagination in the 70s were partly due to the real achievements of the Apollo missions. Maybe it was beyond us to have a working base on the Moon by 1999 but now it’s starting to become a practical possibility.

Today, Sunday, NASA’s Orion capsule arrives home[4]. All being well, the spacecraft will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean after a 3-week trip around the Moon. I wish the project good fortune. 

POST: Sunday 17:40 GMT. The Orion spacecraft, which is to carry astronauts to and from the Moon, has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after its test flight


[2] The Institution of Engineering & Technology




Segmenting, categorising, and naming technical subjects has a long history. However, it’s not often there’s a back story to say what’s in each name. Numerous definitions exist. These are quite often an afterthought. Naming that evolves rather than can be traced to a single author.

The subject on my mind is Avionics. It’s a ubiquitous term in aircraft engineering. In fact, it’s applied much more widely than that because administrators, pilots and air traffic controllers all use it. So, let’s look at the history, etymology and usage of the word.

The word seems obvious, as to not need a definition. Bring the world of aviation and electronics together and there it is – Avionics. However, Avionics often extends beyond the world of aviation and into space. So, it may be better to say, bring the world of aeronautics and astronautics and electronics together and there it is – Avionics.

Notice that it’s electronics and not electrics that forms the definition. A loose distinction between the two might be to say that, in terms of electric current, electronics is anything below an ampere[1] and electrics is that above an ampere.

Marconi was the first to experiment with airborne radio. It was even available to pilots in the First World War. However, spark-gap radio was unloved, heavy, and awkward.

The name Avionics started being used in the 1940s. VHF radio communication between aircraft and ground stations was vital to an aircrafts’ operation. The fabrication of radio valves in high volumes and at low costs led to the use of numerous radio technologies: communications, navigation, RADAR and Radio Altimeters to name a few.

The science and technology of electronics, and the development of electronic devices has advanced faster than that of aircraft design and manufacture. Avionics engineering has been divided into numerous sub-fields as a result.

Where once an aircraft could complete safe flight and landing with a complement of defective avionic equipment that is no longer the case. It’s quite the reverse, as the current generation of both military and civil aircraft are highly depended upon the correct functioning of their avionic systems.

Often the more complex an aircraft and its operation becomes, the more complicated the avionic systems become. Aircraft flight-control systems can be of great sophistication. By contrast a VHF radio hasn’t changed much, in its basic function, for decades.

Although avionics is a common term, it doesn’t often find its way into legislation or everyday usage. There’re certainly great swathes of the population for which the word means nothing. It’s an unusual day if the six-o’clock news has a reference to this technical word.