Curator's Choice: Doug Millard of the Science Museum chooses the Apollo 10 Command Module

Doug Millard interviewed by Chris Broughton | 20 May 2009
a photo of a man standing in front of a space capsule

Curator’s Choice: In his own words... Doug Millard of the Science Museum explains his fascination for the 1969 Apollo 10 Command Module Charlie Brown (1969)

"To be brutally honest, and despite my professional interest, I've chosen this because of my childhood. I'm half a century old so I remember the Apollo programme very clearly – I'm just the right age to have enjoyed Apollos 10 and 11 as an 11-year-old boy. Being granted responsibility for Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 capsule, was almost surreal.

For those who know and recognise the capsule, it rekindles memories of an amazing story, part of an era that is drifting off into history. But for those who are unfamiliar with that project or are too young to remember, it doesn't look like a spaceship. It's all wrong – the wrong colour, the wrong shape. It looks like it may have been kept in a barn somewhere.

Of course, the reason it's that colour and looks like it's been made out of wood is the scorching re-entry it underwent as it came back through the Earth's atmosphere, which burnt off the plastic heat shield. But it's a remarkable object that signifies so many things. I mean, where do we start?

It's part of the Cold War, part of post-war global affairs, part of the space race. When we look at the object itself, we're seeing a final, frozen moment in time, but presumably millions of man-hours went into designing, developing, testing, constructing and flying that object.

Apollo 10 was a home for three men for eight days, which is pretty amazing in itself given that it's so small and confined. And on top of all that, it travelled three quarters of a million miles, went into space and visited another world.

We should all feel a jolt when we see this, and that's why we want to improve its display this year. It won't be a huge intervention – time and resources are short – but we need to unwrap it more, help it talk a little louder. It does look intriguing, and there are features we can hopefully emphasise to try and explain how it worked. It's not difficult. Rocket science isn't difficult, actually – the maths is tricky, but it’s actually very straightforward. Newton basically sewed it up several centuries ago."

a photo of a bronzed conical capsule with an stronaut figure visibel inside

The Apollo 10 command module

"The big challenge is conveying the interior, because that does sing Space Age, Star Trek, Big Science. There's a wonderful set of controls – even though they're 40-plus years old, they still look the real thing. Like Concorde's cockpit, it's impressive, but there's a real human touch – you can still see the astronauts' writing on the console where they've done a bit of arithmetic.

We can't let people touch it or go inside, but I have been inside it myself. It's very cramped, and disorientating because of its shape – it's quite unlike anything we're used to here on Earth. Of course, the astronauts were trained until they were completely used to this strange enclosure, and in weightless conditions more space would have been available.

I suppose we get used to the extreme descriptions, the clichés and the myth of the whole thing, but actually it's all true. You almost need to sweep all of that away and start afresh, look at the sheer scale of the rocket, the power of its engines. One graphic illustration is a plot of US energy consumption from 1968 or 1969. There’s a noticeable blip in this graph, and that represents Saturn 5 taking off. It was a significant contribution to the total US energy expenditure over 12 months – it's something that's difficult to conceive of these days.

This morning we had our actor who impersonates Eugene Cernan, the pilot of the Apollo 10 module, talking to a group of youngsters, and they were absolutely enraptured. He dresses up as an astronaut and does the American accent and everything, and it starts to bring the object to life. There is something about leaving Earth and venturing off into the unknown, which is really quite singular."

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