“Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has Landed”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 20 July. This is a very personal recollection of the Apollo 11 mission, the first lunar landing fifty years ago today, and the story of my disastrous contribution to it.
Like most Britons of a certain age I can remember precisely where I was at 2117 British Summer Time on Sunday, 20 July 1969. Along with millions of British children I was transfixed by the BBC coverage of Apollo 11’s Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM, successfully landing on the surface of the moon. The tension was such I can still feel it today, fifty years later. With Cliff Michelmore in the lead, ably supported by James Burke and Patrick Moore, and with Michael Charlton at Cape Kennedy in Florida, the BBC covered the entire mission pretty much from launch to ‘splashdown’ eight days later in the Pacific. The BBC coverage was but a part of what was one of the first truly global television events, with some half-a-billion people estimated to have watched world-wide.
The entire US space programme, which a then patriotic BBC told us on a daily basis could not have been possible without British engineers, was an inspiration. In fact, the chief architect of the lunar programme was a German, Werner von Braun, who had designed the V1 and V2 missiles which had rained terror on London in 1944. And, whilst I did not want to be an astronaut like so many of my generation, for me what the Americans achieved that day was nothing short of out-of-this-world.
The moon landing is also a bitter-sweet memory. In the run-up to the Apollo mission our science teacher, Mr Taylor, a war ace who had flown RAF Mosquitoes in World War Two and whom we all revered, commissioned me to build a model moonscape out of papier-maché, complete with balsa wood LEM. It took me weeks to get the model right and I was proud of the outcome. It had to be kept in the store-room at the back of the classroom because it was simply too big to take home. Come the morning of the exhibition we were all asked to present our work. Disaster! As I entered the little room to my horror a big footprint sat staring back from slap bang in the middle of my Sea of Tranquillity. It would have been some twenty miles long on the real moon. Someone had stepped on my moon!
At least Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did not have the same problems, although in completing a successful landing they overcame a whole host of others, including a computer overload that forced Armstrong to fly the LEM manually. Even before that triumphant moment the National Aeronautic and Space Agency’s (NASA) Gemini and Apollo programmes had overcome a host of other challenges. The sheer cost was a constant problem, even for the mighty United States. President John F. Kennedy had set out his famous astronomical goal at Rice University, Texas on 12 September 1962 to put an American on the moon before the end of that decade. Almost as soon as the President had made that commitment he began to worry about the cost. He was right to be concerned. At one point, the Apollo programme was consuming some 4% of the entire US GDP. In 1962, Kennedy even asked then Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev if the Soviets would consider pooling their efforts. Kruschev declined.
The space programme also took place against the difficult backdrop of the Cold War. Indeed, there would probably have been no such programme without the Cold War. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union had shocked the Americans by placing the Sputnik 1 satellite in low-Earth orbit. This proved to the Americans the Soviets had the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile rendering the continental United States vulnerable to a strike for the first time in its history. The so-called ‘missile gap’ frenzy was further compounded on 12 April 1961, when Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one and half earth orbits. It seemed the Russians were ahead in what became known as the space race, even though much Soviet ‘superiority’ was but an illusion.
The space programme also experienced tragedy. On the 27 January 1967, Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were burned to death by a flash fire aboard the ground-testing capsule of their Apollo 1 spacecraft. The tapes of their last moments are truly chilling and testify to the enormous risk associated with a programme that tested the boundaries of science, engineering and people, at times to extremes and beyond.
By the time of Apollo 11’s launch from launchpad 39A on July 16 1969 political and popular enthusiasm was already waning with NASA’s admittedly enormous budget falling. President Richard M. Nixon lacked the fervour of President Kennedy for space exploration, even if Vice-President Spiro Agnew wanted to press ahead to Mars by the end of the century. America was changing and increasingly-mired in a losing Vietnam War, whilst at home protests against the war and the growing power and influence of the civil rights movement captured many of the headlines. With the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King America was not a happy place.
And yet, come that moment when Neil Armstrong set his foot upon the lunar surface, the first time humans had stepped on a celestial body other than their own, the world was captivated. My model? My Taylor was so angry he made the entire class line up so he could inspect which of us had the guilty signature of wasted paper-maché on our school shoes. Having inspected the entire class and found no felon Mr Taylor then insisted on inspecting mine. Sure enough, the souls of my shoes were caked in moonscape.
Fifty years on and Apollo 11 continues to amaze and inspire. As for my contribution, it was one small step for me, one giant (beep - profanity deleted) for my kind.