Thoughts on the Men on the Moon (July 21, 2019)

Thoughts on the Men on the Moon (July 21, 2019)

Considering the historical enormity of that moment fifty years ago when a man first walked on the surface of the moon, I have a confession to make. I missed it.

Throughout the four days after Apollo 11 was blasted off from Florida’s Cape Kennedy by a giant Saturn V rocket, I, like many people, followed the progress of the three astronauts in their spaceship Columbia as they’d travelled nearly a quarter of a million miles through space.

But when on July 21, 1969, with Columbia now in orbit around the moon, and two of its crew preparing to climb into the lunar module, the Eagle, for the final descent, I gave up and went to bed. It was all taking too long. I had a life to live, a job to do.

I suppose, the truth is, I somehow still wasn’t convinced it was really going to happen. Not live on TV, as NASA promised…well hoped. It all seemed too much like science fiction.

That such a remarkable expedition could even be possible had been unthinkable only a few years earlier, when, in 1962, the first television satellite, Telstar, had brought us live television pictures across the Atlantic, via a moor in Cornwall called Goonhilly Downs.

Even though one of the first images to arrive, in flickering shades of grey, had been totally mundane, just a car driving down a road, being able to see anything at all in America as it was actually happening was awesome.

Surely, then, the possibility of watching images of two spacemen kicking up moondust should have kept me rivetted to my TV? That it didn’t, and didn’t for lots of other people I knew, was, I suspect, as much to do with show-biz as history.

Because, with an eye on the TV network figures, NASA had scheduled the landing for prime-time viewing across the United States, which meant that over here it happened at the ungodly hour of four minutes to four in the morning. And, my cuttings book for 1969 tells me that I had to be up early the next day to go and review a now totally forgotten Sophia Loren film.

A couple of friends tell me they managed to stay up for the landing, with my own newspaper at the time, the London Evening Standard, throwing a special champagne breakfast at the Savoy Hotel for staff who were more elevated than me.

But, like most people in Britain, I first saw the flickering black and white pictures of the landing in a recording only later that day – when I found myself astonished at the coolness of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the lunar  module, as he flew over the moon’s desert-like Sea of Tranquility looking for a bolder-free place to set down.

It was the tensest moment of the voyage so far. Hit a rock on the pock-marked surface while landing, and the lunar module might have toppled over, with the expedition a disaster and the lives of the astronauts ended.

But no rock was hit, and finally came the line from Armstrong, planned well ahead, obviously, but almost epically. ‘Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’

Cue much cheering and applause at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. To be followed a little later by, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,’ as Armstrong, followed by his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin, stepped off the Eagle’s ladder and on to an alien world.

You might think such a feat of human ingenuity and bravery called immediately for mass jubilation – the ringing of church bells, firework celebrations and street parties. Well, not in the UK, I’m afraid. If there were moon parties in my neighbourhood, I wasn’t invited.

I suspect that schoolchildren, some of whom would have had lessons that explained exactly what was happening, were more excited than their parents.

American friends, obviously, saw it as the triumph it was, which was fair enough, as it was their engineers who had built the spacecraft, and their boys up there, guys with American accents who were trying to drill a hole into the moon rock to erect the Stars and Stripes.

But although the BBC and ITV showed the landing repeatedly that day, my recollection was that the general response here was somewhat muted.

Only that night, standing in the garden and staring up at the moon, did I begin to feel any real emotion. Yes, I’d been humbled by the sheer bravery of the astronauts, but suddenly, as the moon glistened icily between clouds, I became afraid for them. Really afraid.

Those guys were still up there, collecting rocks and taking photos of themselves and the Earth – which must never have looked more welcoming.

But, while getting up to the moon had been one thing, getting home again seemed a jolly sight more difficult.

The plan was that after a little under 24 hours, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would blast their lunar module back up into the sky.

There they would rendezvous with the spacecraft Columbia, which, while they’d been grabbing the headlines, had been in orbit around the moon piloted by the third member of the crew, Michael Collins. At which point, all being well, the three of them would set off back to Earth again.

But what if all didn’t go well? What if their luck ran out and the lunar module couldn’t take off again? Or what if it did take off, but then missed docking with the mothership?

And even if that worked, what if there was a computer malfunction and the Columbia was accidentally aimed out into the silent, black vastness of space instead of towards the shining blue and white world they could see that was home?

Any of these could have happened, as, by all accounts the computer power they had on board Columbia was little more powerful than what we get in any saloon car today.

What then for the moon heroes? If their sat-nav got it wrong could they over-ride it and somehow steer themselves to safety? O

r would they be destined to become a ghost spaceship and fly on and on into the emptiness of the universe until the end of time?

The crew of Apollo 11 were brave beyond brave, but I wonder did they, at any time, ask themselves what they were doing there? Thinking of their wives and children, did they sometimes secretly question President John F Kennedy’s promise to Congress in 1961 that the United States would put an American on the moon by the end of the Sixties?

As a boast it was all part of the Cold War, which had become a space race when the Soviet Union had beaten America to the start and in 1957 put the first  satellite into orbit, Sputnik-1, followed by a dog Laika, then a man, Yuri Gagarin, and finally a woman, Valentina Tereshkova.

America being America, it had, of course, to go one better, no matter what the cost, no matter how many lives were lost – such as the three Americans who had died in an Apollo rehearsal two years earlier.

We know of one Russian who was killed when his Soyuz spacecraft crashed to earth that year, but in the secretive world of the Soviet Union there were almost certainly others who perished before him, and some, both Russian and American, who would die later. Space travel was, and still is, a risky business.

Before any of this had happened, when we’d been innocently reading our Dan Dare comics or enjoying Star Trek on TV, we’d never really thought about the enormous explosion of rocket power and fire that was needed to thrust a spacecraft through the stratosphere in order to defy gravity.

But that’s how every journey into space begins. Nor had we imagined the horror of being lost in space, and the days, and possibly weeks, of flying on and on until the oxygen supply ran out.

No matter how bad thing got with the Klingons, Captain Kirk could always say, ’Beam me up, Scottie’, into his mobile, and he would be magically transported back to the sanctuary of the Starship Enterprise.

But there was no Scottie on hand to rescue Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins if anything went wrong. They were on their own.

This is what was on my mind that night as the Apollo mission began its journey home, back to a world where two weeks earlier the Rolling Stones had given a famous free concert in Hyde Park, and where the weekend before a young researcher called Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned when the youngest of the Kennedy brothers had accidentally driven a car off a wooden bridge in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Like every year, 1969 had a summer that bristled with headlines of all kinds – the re-opening of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the murder of Sharon Tate and others by the Charles Manson gang, Concorde’s maiden flight and Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music.

But as dreadful as some of those events were, and as entertaining and exhilarating as were others, they were all part and parcel of life and death on Earth.

That first trip to the moon, and not, as Frank Sinatra would sing, ‘on gossamer wing’, was of a different order completely, but one that, all the same, was still terribly human. A story of rivalry between the leaders and the peoples of the two super-powers who had started the space-race, it was also one of private joy and relief at the astronauts’ eventual homecoming to ticker tape parades in Chicago and New York – with even more show-biz hoopla to follow.

Watching those first man-made steps on the moon moment as it happened should have been one of the most memorable nights of my life, so why was I so bovine that I didn’t stay awake to celebrate it?

My only explanation is that it was so remarkable, so complex, I hadn’t grasped the sheer enormity of it, that I could hardly believe what was going to happen…until it did.

Nor do I think I was alone in that. Almost immediately conspiracy theories began that the whole thing was fake news – although that wasn’t the term used them; that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were all part of a massive scam, organised by US security, to hoodwink the world, and especially those wily Russians.

It was all daft, of course, too incredible a conspiracy for belief…but, hardly more incredible than what the crew of Apollo 11 actually achieved.

All the same, within a few years, there was a brilliant, but much overlooked movie, Capricorn One, to show us exactly how such a scam could have been done – which turned out to be much more enjoyable than last year’s apparently factual but boring biopic, First Man, with Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong.

Fiction can be easily digestible and fun. Fact, when it is of such an extraordinary dimension, can take a bit of chewing over.

The technological changes we’ve witnessed in the half century since 1969 have been of a scale unprecedented in history, with spacecraft now travelling ever further into the solar system.

As for satellites, we use them for all kinds of purposes – to spy on our nation’s enemies and our friends, too, to help us predict the weather and to guide our cars door-to-door across continents without us ever having to look at a map.

Other men have now followed Armstrong and Aldrin on to the moon, some driving a space buggy, others pretending to play golf. But none will be remembered like those pioneers of 50 years ago – whose great moment I slept through.