NASA legend Sy Liebergot attends Kielder Observatory fundraiser

Apollo programme legend Sy Liebergot backs Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village plan at fundraiser

Mike Kelly Sy Liebergot with Jacqui Miller and Gary Fildes
Sy Liebergot with Jacqui Miller and Gary Fildes

NASA legend Sy Liebergot was guest of honour last night at a fundraiser for the proposed £8.5m Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village.

He was the flight controller on the Apollo 13 mission who took the call from the astronauts on board reporting a malfunction that crippled the craft putting their lives in danger.

The events were dramatised in the 1995 Ron Howard film Apollo 13 which revealed how Sy and the NASA crew came up with a plan to get the three astronauts - Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise - back to earth.

“I give the film a ‘C’,” said Sy, who was played by the director’s brother Clint Howard in the movie.

In it, lead astronaut Jim Lovell says “Houston, we have a problem” which has gone down as one of the most famous quotes, alongside Neil Armstrong’s first moon landing speech, in NASA history.

However Sy revealed: “The words used were ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’, in the past tense, by Jack Swigert first then Jim Lovell chipped in. Not ‘Houston we have a problem’, in the present tense, as in the movie which has entered the lexicon.”

He was invited to the fundraiser by Gary Fildes, Lead Astronomer at the existing Kielder Observatory where the new project will be based if the cash is raised.

Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory
Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory

If it is, it will contain a 60 seat planetarium, a specially built £500,000 telescope with a one metre wide aperture accessible to wheelchair users, and an accommodation block for visiting astronomers.

Special glass topped ‘pods’ for use by members of the public to observe the night skies are also planned.

It is based in Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park which has been granted dark-sky status by The International Dark Skies Association.

The status means the night sky is protected and lighting controls are in place to prevent light pollution.

In honour of the award, it was renamed Northumberland Dark Sky Park.

Organisers hope the village, which could be the biggest observatory built for the public in the world, will be up and running within five years and attract 75,000 visitors a year.

Sy, now 78, he said: “What Gary Fildes is doing spiked my interest. He is trying to expand the horizon of the observatory and I’m all for that.

“If I can add to Gary’s experience and desire to expand the goals of the observatory I will do that.”

Local businesswoman Jacqui Miller MBE is one of the driving forces behind the fundraising drive, inspired by a visit to the Kielder Observatory.

Jacqui Miller MBE, global sales and marketing director at manufacturing firm, Miller UK
Jacqui Miller MBE, global sales and marketing director at manufacturing firm, Miller UK

She said: “For me it is probably one of the most incredible projects that this region has seen.”

The event took place in the Moncur Suite at St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United.

There was a charity auction with lots including a replica of the Apollo 13 checklist Sy drew up and signed by Jim Lovell - played by Tom Hanks in the movie.

Also up for sale was a dollar bill signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins who were the crew on Apollo 11, which carried out the first ever moon landing.

It has been offered up to the cause by an anonymous donor and anything above the donor’s reserve price will go towards the village.

Gary said: “Sy was and still is an integral part of the most inspirational feat of modern technology and science, the Apollo programme. These guys have a message to tell which fits in with our plan here, to inspire and enthuse the next generation.”

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