The cuckoo clock strikes the hour. “That was a sixth birthday present. It’s never been right but I love it,” says Patrick Moore.
This may come as a surprise to many given that he has been so meticulous in just about everything he has achieved, whether it be presenting the Sky at Night, playing the xylophone or bowling a vicious ball at an unsuspecting batsman, something he managed to do until he was 78.
Was there some kind of hidden meaning in the falsehood of time? “I think very few things are impossible but time travel probably is. I’m very dubious, to say the least.”
If the transportation of humans through time will forever be beyond us, there are countless things that are not, according to the United Kingdom’s best known astronomer.
“We can’t solve inter-galactic, or inter-solar travel by our modern methods as it would take far too long. Mind you, television would’ve been seen as science fiction two-hundred years ago. So, who knows? But to get to other planets, in other solar systems, it would have to be done by something that is currently regarded as science fiction. However, science fiction does have a habit of turning into science fact.”
Time becomes a recurring theme and none more so than when the conversation turns to the phenomenon that is the Sky at Night, which is now in its 54th year.
Back in 1957 the world was a very different place. Space exploration was still in its infancy - the Soviet Union were preparing to steal a march on their American counterparts as the space race began by launching Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite.
Six months before, in April of the same year, Patrick Moore had little idea of the journey ahead.
“When The Sky at Night began it was only going to be for three months. I remember the first time, all live of course, and I remember looking at the camera and reading the words ‘The Sky at Night – A regular monthly programme presented by Patrick Moore.’ I was thinking – my entire career depends on what I do in the next twenty minutes.”
It went smoothly and the BBC must have liked what they saw but there have been a couple of hiccups along the way.
“I was doing a live episode many years ago and there was a manned lunar mission to the far side of the moon and I announced: ‘Look, the first men round the moon. They are now on the far side. You can’t see or hear them but in a minute or less, we will be able to. Any second now we will hear the voices of the first men round the moon and this is one of the great moments in human history’ and the BBC, at this exact moment, changed over to Jackanory.”
He may have been smiling as he re-counted the story but you could sense it still rankled with him.
The high points have far outweighed the lows, however, not least the variety of people on the show discussing their fascination with the cosmos. From the obvious like Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan, to the less obvious like Queen guitarist Brian May.
“Brian took his BSc in astro-physics at university more than 30 years ago and then began do his phd when Queen came long and swept him off his feet. Astronomy was then on the back-burner but 15 years ago I dragged him back into it. I told him: ‘You’re going to finish your phd and write a book with me.’ He said: ‘I can’t.’ And I said: ‘Yes you can’. And I kept saying this until he gave in. He’s glad he did now.”
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first and second men on the moon, were a particular highlight of The Sky at Night.
As personalities, though, they could not be more different. Patrick confirmed: “Neil and Buzz are very different characters. Neil is much quieter, very humble, and Buzz is, in the best sense of the word, a publicist.”
Following the moon landings, the sky was no longer the limit but Space exploration came to a grinding, and chilling, halt on the 28th of January 1986 when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 73 seconds into its mission.
“It put things back a long way and it came as a nasty shock. Of course, I knew many people connected with that mission. Unfortunately, the shuttle was always flawed but you’re bound to have accidents and there have been fewer people killed in the early days of astronautics than there were in the early days of aeronautics.”
Moore has an intimate knowledge of both. He added: “I think I’m the only living person who’s known the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin), the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong) and the first airman, Orville Wright (who is generally regarded with inventing, building and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight).”
The man who gave the monocle added notoriety is still as enthusiastic today as he was more than 80 years ago when he first became interested in matter beyond our atmosphere after picking up GF Chambers’s The Story of the Solar System from his mother’s book shelf.
One of his greatest passions is encouraging people to gaze up to the stars and wonder. “If I have done anything at all,” he says modestly. “It would be to interest others, particularly youngsters, and I’ve brought other people into astronomy, giving them a hand where possible. That’s what I’ve tried to do. It does give me great pleasure when youngsters I’ve known have gone on to become great astronomers.”
As for budding astronomers today he has a few wise words. “Read some books and get the basics. Go out on a clear night and learn your way round the sky. Then get a pair of binoculars to view the stars, followed by joining your local astronomical society.”
As for the future he feels as though the next man on the moon will come from somewhere less associated with space travel. “I think the next man on the moon will be from China or possibly India.”
And what about the next frontier – Mars? “At the moment we have one problem,” he says, before a long pause. “Radiation.”
With that, lunch was over and his mind was quickly onto something more imminent. “I think I’ll have a gin and tonic now. Would you like one too?”