20 July 2019

How Long Would It Take You To Ride To The Moon?

As a teenager, I followed the journey of John Rakowski, who rode his bicycle around the globe.  In all, it took him three years to pedal through every continent except Antarctica.

Up to that time, one other journey so captured my imagination:  the Apollo 11 flight.  Exactly fifty years ago on this date, Neil Armstrong alighted from the space capsule and became the first human to set foot on the moon.

I must say, though, that the moon landing didn't sustain my interest in the same way Rakowski's trip did, mainly because the trip from Cape Canaveral to the lunar surface took only four days, and a few days later, Armstrong and fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin (who followed in Armstrong's steps) and Michael Collins returned. 

Moreover, you couldn't escape (even if you wanted to) seeing or hearing about Apollo 11:  literally everything else, from Bewitched to ballgames, was pre-empted for moment-by-moment coverage of the event.  It really took no effort to follow the moon mission.  On the other hand, the only news, it seemed, you could get about Rakowski's trip was his serialized accounts in Bicycling!, which came out every month.

I mention him and the astronauts today because of an interesting Wired article.  Rhett Allain is a physicist who can actually explain his work in terms that folks like me can understand.  Heck, he's even entertaining.  But what makes his article so wonderful is that he takes a seemingly idle question (which, I admit, I have pondered) and answers it in a way that makes the process of scientific research comprehensible and fascinating while showing its complexities.

The question is this:  How long would it take to ride a bicycle to the moon?  The short answer is 267 days, but that assumes that the cyclist weighs 75 kg (165 pounds) and puts out the same amount of energy as a Tour de France cyclist would--for 24 hours a day.  He acknowledges that such a combination of factors is impossible, and that other things come into play, such as what sort of cable or other contraption would serve as the rider's route between worlds and a bicycle capable of being ridden on it.

One thing that's great about Dr. Allain's article is that it reveals just how complicated a task it was to land humans on the moon, and why accomplishing it little more than six years after JFK's proclamation was nothing short of miraculous.

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