Two kinds of country?

We return after a break with a short article from one of our supporters about a recent film release

Last week saw the release of “First Man”, a film about Neil Armstrong who, nearly 50 years ago, was the first man to walk on the Moon. One of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Amongst the conspiracy theories and misinformation surrounding the Apollo missions, there is an anti-metric meme, sometimes used on social media, that asserts that NASA did not use the metric system in the Moon landings. The meme reads something like this: “There are two kinds of country – Those that use the metric system, and those that have landed on the Moon.”

However, even in the 1960s, NASA engineers and mathematicians worked, at least partially, using the metric system. As is the case in the UK with road signage, the use of metric units in America is often hidden from public view. A good example of this is the Lunar Module Guidance Computer, the onboard computer that assisted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their descent to the surface of the Moon. Internally, the computer’s software used metric units for powered-flight navigation and guidance calculations, and values such as altitude and altitude-rate were then converted to imperial units for display console purposes.

Perhaps a new meme is needed. How about: “There are two kinds of country – Those that have used the metric system to land on the Moon, and those that haven’t been to the Moon”.

For further reading see:

18 thoughts on “Two kinds of country?”

  1. It is certain that the next country to put a man or woman on the Moon will be one that uses SI aka metric as its primary system of measurement.


  2. Very interesting, a surprise but it should not be really.
    As I and a few others here have tried Imperial calculations on a computer we know it is difficult to put it very mildly. Back in the day it would have been all but impossible on anything but a mainframe. Until I worked out how to do it myself I saw others converting from Imperial to metric, doing the calculations, then converting back to Imperial, which is basically what NASA was doing here. with the human input/output.
    I guess that is easier that re-training a human.


  3. Before his death, the head of NASA Wernher von Braun in a TV interview once stated that he loathed USC and never used it. Von Braun internally did all of his calculations in metric. I often wonder how many conversion errors caused delays, loss of life and other problems. I’m sure the conversions didn’t result in rounded USC values but rounding was done and it resulted in errors.

    In the beginning of the film, the astronauts were in a capsule that had supposedly risen to the edge of space (which is at 100 km) and in trying to return were bouncing off the atmosphere and going higher up. The altitude shown on the altimeter was 115 000 feet and was going up and down from this figure. This was only about 35 km above the ground and in no way even close to the edge of space. The average person viewing the film would not know this and would falsely assume the capsule made it into space.

    NASA’s latest projects going back to 2009 were still resisting metrication. Private aerospace companies using the metric system complained to the Obama administration and all of these projects were canceled. NASA then became an administrator handing out contracts to private companies using the metric system.

    Here is an article from the time in New scientist that points out the problem:


  4. @ Daniel Jackson 2018-10-17 14:20
    I have often wondered about this with the UK fledgling space fiasco.
    I have upped my research into rockets given that UK seems to have woken up on one side of the bed, but gone into collaboration with Lockheed Martin on the other!
    USA, UK and others benefited from the German rocket technology after WWII, all of which would have been in metric units. A gift wrapped present that USA and UK re-wrapped in Imperial.
    In the case of UK it was made much worse by trying to develop rockets with France, the UK stage in Imperial and the French stage in metric. It never did work.
    The UK part, Black Arrow did get into space somehow, but new to me is that France developed its Diamant rocket which became Ariane 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and now 6.
    Here we are 49 years latter and probably going to make all the same mistakes with the pre-knowledge that it will be an expensive mess from start to demise.
    Interesting parallel, the ‘Bloodhound Project’ similarly plagued has recently gone into administration.
    My opinions only.


  5. Brian:

    Inspire the next generation about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
    Share an iconic research and development programme with a global audience.
    Set a new World Land Speed Record of 1,000mph.

    Miles per hour are not scientific and non-metric units and global audience are incompatible. Maybe China or some other powerful metric country can set a World Land Speed Record of 1800 km/h or 500 m/s.


  6. @Daniel Jackson
    I was hoping it would be bought out by France, Germany or Ireland. Not very patriotic of me, but that is UK today.


  7. Brian,

    I’m sure the reason the project failed was due to the lack of interest world-wide resulting in no to limited financial backing. Not because they used miles but because there is no economic or technical gain from pursuing it. In the past there was an interest no matter what the cost of breaking barriers even if there is nothing to gain from it. Today there is not.

    The mile barrier just adds to the ridiculousness of it and gives it an un-scientific and nontechnical aura.


  8. It is a pity that the US still uses medieval imperial units. This is OK if limited within US borders, but outside that it should stop.
    I just bought a Garmin Edge Explore bike computer. The (horrible) software of this device refuses to change to metric; my weight is still displayed on my (metric) laptop in pounds an other useless units.
    My question: why are US companies so arrogant to ignore the whole world outside the US and is there no rule or convention in the US to oblige companies exporting to the rest of the world to use SI system units?
    kind regards, Lode van der Pol, Waalre, Nederland


  9. Lode van der Pol,

    The US wants the world to use USC (not imperial) instead of the US using metric. This is how they get you to conform by pushing non-metric friendly devises on you. Best thing to do is return the product to the shop you got it from and let them know why you are returning it. If enough people do this, the shop won’t place future orders from them and the company will lose sales. Boycott all non-metric products.


  10. Another example of the weird split in metric usage in a recent documentary by Australian television showing how Monsanto has been hiding the truth about the carcinogenic properties of their best-selling herbicide, Round Up.

    Most of the Australian footage is in metric. However, when Americans are interviewed, they all use US Customary. It is pretty jarring to hear the abrupt transitions from metric to US Customary and back again.

    Two things are missing from the documentary when it comes to metric usage. The first is that the documentary does not show subtitles converting the USC spoken by the Americans to metric, which would be very easy to do. The fact that they did not do this implies to me that there is still an expectation that Australians understand at least basic USC units like “miles”.

    The other sad sign is that while both the Australians in the documentary and the narrator mostly used metric, they both reverted to “acres” to describe the size of farms or regions that utilized Round Up.

    “Acres”???? Why on earth aren’t they using “hectares”. I don’t get it. Seems rather weird to me.

    Can’t wait to see the USA convert to metric. At my age though I may not live to even see the start of a serious conversion program.

    Ah, well … I can still hold out hope the UK will convert road signs while I am still alive! 😉


  11. Ezra;:

    I think the answer to your question is that confusion breeds even more confusion. I watch German TV quite a lot and occasionally hear large areas referred to as the size of ‘so many football pitches’. This is a relatively new thing. Now I wonder where that contagion spread from?


  12. You are completely, utterly missing the point.

    People who use computers to do their calculations anyway can use whatever system they choose. Who cares?

    But the USA is intelligent enough to understand that for the average citizen in daily life, Imperial is far, far easier, more useful and more intuitive. The units are all based on things that can easily be estimated from body parts or other things that are always near, and those conversions that are “easier”? Nobody actually does them, so they are a straw man.

    Those fractions? Try dividing something, anything into 10 equal parts. Half is easy, but then 5 on each side of that? Not so much. But in Imperial, you just keep dividing (or multiplying) by two and you eventually get the unit you need. 1/16 of an inch is EXACTLY half of half of half of half. Easy. A cup is about the size of your fist. A pint is two of those, a quart is two pints, and a gallon is four (2 x 2) quarts. Again, easy and obvious.

    But yeah, these obvious things are way over the heads of people so easily duped into believing the SI “superiority” nonsense.


  13. Mark H:

    For rough and ready measurement, you may be right. If that’s all people need. Now tell me how many parts in a modern American automobile are made to imperial measurements?


  14. Mark H’s comment is hollow and deserving of further facts. Americans only find USC easier because they are rarely if ever taught SI units and when they are they are taught them, they are taught to convert them to USC. Thus the educational system is biased towards USC and Americans are not given the opportunity to learn SI properly.

    Americans lack intuitiveness when it comes to measuring and understanding what is measured. They actually have no feel for any unit. Because of this they are weak and do poorly in maths and science and most Americans loathe these two subjects. Americans, especially under Donald Trump have become jealous of foreign nations using the metric system and passing them by in all of the engineering sciences. Especially China. China has expanded is economic and technical base much more quickly due to their use of the metric system.

    Imperial/USC so-called advantages are lost on the world that has passed and continues to pass the US and England by. Explaining fractions, cups, pints and pounds, etc to the metric world only results in roaring laughter. They’re happy you resist metrication, as it gives them the opportunity to pass you by even further and the knowledge that England and the US will continue to slip.

    Metric countries can get by with metric only but imperial/USC hangouts have to mix in some metric just to keep their heads above water. But the mixture actually makes matters worse and comes at a price. The world has proven that metric only is the only way to be a success.


  15. Jake,

    You are wrong when you say “for rough and ready measurement, you may be right.” He’s also wrong. Americans and I’m sure the English too have no feel whatsoever for any type of measuring or measurement. Most if not all of their guesses are way off. Ask an American how far away something is and it is always a quarter mile even if it is in reality a kilometre.


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