FIFTY years ago this week, as excitement about the first-ever moon landing reached fever pitch, Professor Tony Klein became an instant celebrity as one of the Australian voices commentating on the voyage of Apollo 11.
The University of Melbourne science professor, now semi-retired and a grandfather, was scouted by the ABC to do voice-over commentary explaining the technology behind Apollo 11 during its mission.
Klein, who headed the university’s physics department, came to the public broadcaster’s notice through his newspaper articles, and was asked to be a TV panellist describing the history-making scenes being fed live from Apollo 11.
He recalled the ABC rushing him in a taxi to its studios, sitting him beneath glaring studio lights and telling him to start commentating. “I was dazed, but we had press kits and they saved the situation. Most of the time it was a translation job – the press kits were quite technical and I had a background in engineering and physics, so that’s what gave me my 15 minutes of fame in the space business.”
Klein was relieved when fears that the Eagle landing module would be buried when it touched down in the dust of the Sea of Tranquillity on the moon on July 21, 1969 (Australian time) proved wrong.
He admired the skill of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin in navigating the module to the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited above in the main craft. “‘Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed’ – it impressed me that they were so professional and sounded so cool.”
When Armstrong emerged from the landing module and set foot on the moon, Klein was in awe, but had little time for reflection. “I was far too busy at the time trying to work out what the hell was going on because the pictures were really lousy and I was staring at a terrible black-and-white monitor placed a fair distance away at my feet.”
Afterwards Klein found he had become something of a campus celebrity, returning to the commentary booth for Apollo 12 later in 1969 and for the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission the following year.
He will mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 by giving a lecture on Kepler’s Law of planetary motion, similar to one he gave 50 years ago.
“What they found on the moon, could have been found by bringing back samples unmanned,” he said, but described the 1969 mission as “a great human achievement”.