Half a century ago, the moon landing showed us the fragility of our planet, and that nothing was impossible

It is important to remember how crucial the inspiration of that one small step was to a new generation of engineers around the world – it would underpin so many of the innovations we take for granted today

Sue Ion
Saturday 20 July 2019 16:05
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Footage from the 1969 moon landing Apollo 11 mission

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 space mission took its place in global history.

I remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was an amazing achievement, enabled by a brilliant team of engineers, scientists and technicians at Nasa. I was still at school and we were utterly awed by the engineering and ingenuity that made it happen. The posters on my wall at university were the famous shot of Neil Armstrong on the moon and the Blue Planet from space.

Today, half a century later, it’s important to remember how crucial the inspiration of that one small step was to a new generation of engineers around the world – it would underpin so many of the innovations we take for granted today.

Here in the UK, a “new Britain” was being forged in the “white heat” of technology. The MacRobert Award for Engineering Innovation was presented for the first time in 1969. Established by the MacRobert Trust, the medal features a man leaping for the moon to commemorate the lunar landing, and the £50,000 prize recognises those that meet three key criteria – commercial success, societal benefit, and true innovation.

In a year that saw Americans on the moon, the judges had a tough decision as to who should win that first award for British innovation. They announced joint winners: a team from Freeman, Fox and Partners for the aerodynamic deck design of the Severn Bridge – later used for long-span bridges all over the world – and a team from Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine that powered the Harrier, the world’s first vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

Since 1969, the global influence of winning British innovations has been maintained, with a host of world firsts, including the CT scanner in 1972, the first bionic hand in 2008 and Raspberry Pi, the world’s most affordable computer, in 2017.

Landing on the moon gave the whole world a new perspective on our planet, in particular the fragility of our environment. It is only fitting therefore that our 50th anniversary winner is already reducing the carbon footprint of commercial flight – Bombardier’s advanced composite aircraft wing is the first certified commercial aircraft wing made using resin transfer infusion. This new technique, developed in their world-leading Belfast facility, uses less energy, fewer parts and results in a lighter wing. The carbon composite wing is approximately 10 per cent lighter than a metal wing, reducing fuel burn and emissions.

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As we celebrate the achievements of the Apollo programme’s engineers and astronauts in the late Sixties, it is crucial that we continue to support the generations who carry forward their legacy.

Inspired by innovation, today’s young engineers know that nothing is impossible in meeting the grand challenges we have to face in the future.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS is chair of the UK Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board and chair of the judging panel for the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation

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