Apollo 11: 30 Years

The Sunday Herald in Scotland published an edited version of the following article on 18 July 1999.

"We choose to go to the Moon...

...we choose to go to the Moon in this decade,
and do the other things,
not because they are easy,
but because they are hard."

John F. Kennedy had a way with speeches and with this one, he cajoled and inspired his nation to perform one of those rare events which will endure in the culture of humankind even beyond the next millennium. I was fortunate and privileged, as a nine-year-old, to have witnessed with 600 million of my fellow humans, the moment when the first of a dozen American test pilots placed his suited foot onto the rough, ruined lunar tilth.

The media were running on their reserve supply of superlatives and clich├ęs, proclaiming these men as "heroes" and having the "right stuff". Teflon was erroneously held aloft as a "spin-off" from the space program and it began to seem that going to the Moon was just one more television extravaganza like a royal wedding or a cup final. But over the three and a half years of Apollo, I watched the TV coverage of the six lunar landings with an almost primeval awareness that these events were beyond contemporary understanding. I still do not believe their meaning has been realised by our culture.

Growing up under the flight path into Glasgow Airport, I, like all the boys around me, indulged in plane spotting. Unlike them, I only went through the motions of collecting aircraft numbers for in reality, I was more fascinated by the intrinsic grace of these flying machines and I dreamt of the beautiful cloudscapes in which they flew. But the environment beyond the atmosphere attracted me even more. The realm of planets and stars is an ancient backdrop for the dreams of people and I found that mine readily projected themselves onto its boundless scale. Then, after 400,000 American workers had toiled for a decade through 18-hour days, high divorce rates and unbelievable stress, and had spent 21 billion 1964 dollars, Neil Armstrong made this little boy's, and a dead president's dream come true.

When family and finances allowed, I made pilgrimages to Kennedy Space Center to see what an Apollo spacecraft looked like up close and take in the business end of a Saturn moonrocket. I discovered the rich seam of reading available on the internet, exemplified by one man's decade-long endeavour to document the exploration of Luna before the original papers and tapes crumble to dust. The unmatched Apollo Lunar Surface Journal by Eric Jones is a "dynamic document" which thrives on the net's ability to bring people together for a common purpose. As part of this effort I immersed myself in making the official histories of Apollo available to all on the web, for which NASA Administrator Dan Goldin saw fit to present me with an award - a humbling moment.

Now I am embarking on the best journey of all. The Apollo Flight Journal is my attempt to extend Eric's work and to explain, to anyone who wants to read, how humans went about getting from the Earth to the Moon using 1960's technology. Like Eric's journal, it is a heavily annotated transcript of the crew's conversation with Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Moreover, two of those "heroes" who saw the Moon up close have offered their help in fulfilling the journal's aim. Yet no matter how much I absorb about Apollo, the awe I feel at its achievement never fades.

In recent years, I discovered an entire slice of the population, now entering middle age, who like me, were young boys and girls when the Lunar Module Eagle carried Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the grey, pulverised, basaltic surface of Mare Tranquillitatis. All these people harbour a deep appreciation of the quiet heroism displayed by NASA's pilots. It took rare qualities of skill to ride a flimsy spacecraft from a speed over twice as fast as Concorde to a safe landing on an unknown, rugged terrain; through an atmosphere more rarefied than the hardest vacuum we can produce in the laboratory and with the cool, green hills of Earth over three days travel away.

What was especially striking to us was that these pilots, especially those that followed Armstrong's initial timid steps, strode out into this unique landscape and became field geologists. Largely through their efforts, science has settled on an extraordinary theory for the genesis of the Earth-Moon system, whereby two planets collided in the early years of the Solar System, coalescing to form the Earth with the Moon accreting from the vast amount of debris thrown off from the cataclysm. It takes a truly ancient place like to Moon to yield knowledge like this. The youngest rocks found on the Moon are generally older than the very oldest samples found on Earth. Had the first vertebrates been able to look at the Moon half a billion years ago, it would have looked essentially identical to what we see today. Except for future human intervention, the sites where six crews worked thirty years ago will remain as they are today, utterly unchanged, for thousands of years to come. Apollo's legacy is beyond Star Wars, and in its truth, it is even more beguiling.

Now, thirty years after the fact, we are in the process of losing the generation who gave us Apollo as time takes its toll, while some of us even refuse to believe the landings ever occurred. Ten days ago, the fun-loving but hugely competent commander of Apollo 12, Pete Conrad, was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 69. To leave us while riding a Harley Davidson was like the man. The third person to step out onto the Moon, he was more than just a moonwalker. He subsequently rescued the ailing Skylab space station which had been damaged at launch, during one of the most daring spacewalks ever. Pete described it as the highlight of his space career, beyond even his time on the Moon. Skylab became an important chapter in the human occupation of space yet it is barely remembered except for its unfortunate demise over western Australia in 1979. The public's interest in space was waning.

After Apollo, the Americans spent 20 years and a sum of money greater than was spent on Apollo in designing and redesigning a space station within the shifting sands of Washington politics. They cast off the hardware they had built for Apollo in favour of the Space Shuttle, a cost-saving transportation system that cost billions and arguably saved nothing. In short, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had become a mature bureaucracy. Forged as a Cold War tool, it had learned that its number one goal was to justify its continued existence.

The Soviets, who had tried hard to get to the Moon before the Americans until catastrophic mishaps with their gargantuan launch vehicle set them back too far to catch up, settled on the worthy cause of establishing a permanently manned presence in space. Their gifted engineers and designers developed systems for sustaining people for very long periods in a spectacularly successful program which culminated in Mir. It is a little unfair that the West's view of this remarkable spacecraft concentrated on admittedly serious mishaps towards the end of its extended life. The negative coverage took away from the achievement Mir represented in the finest spirit of human progress.

Now, the fall of the Russian economy is set to physically pull Mir down too and we are left with an ambitious and uneasy alliance between the American and Russian space programs. With bit parts played by Europe, Canada and Japan, the International Space Station (ISS) will define human spaceflight for a long time to come. Where is this spacecraft going? Round and round the Earth for the next couple of decades with a program of research that, while interesting, will feature little in the public consciousness.

Perhaps I ought not to expect spaceflight in the nineties to live up to the sheer magic of seeing men explore the Moon as a youngster. Apollo came out of the confluence of disparate and unrepeatable political forces of the early sixties. The Cold War was icy in the extreme and fingers were hovering over nuclear buttons while the superpowers glared at each other over Cuba. The supposedly backward Soviets had already trounced an arrogant USA into space with large rockets equally capable of lobbing heavy warheads across the North Pole. Kennedy wanted a potent display of American technical superiority with peaceful overtones. The puissance of a Saturn V moonrocket lifting off and the triumphant return of crews with fingernails full of moondust served his purpose. None of us may live to see a similar result come from the throws of the political dice.

But I have two sons with eager hearts and open minds who crave inspiration from the world and universe around them. The fare they get from the TV, the games console and the PC is acceptable and their diet of books is wholesome. Yet I feel sorry that they may not witness a defining moment to rival Apollo. Though NASA is sending probes out to the Solar System, some carrying my sons' names along with a few hundred thousand others, and some part of a flotilla of craft heading for Mars, these robots lack the spiritual link we make to human endeavours. David Scott, who commanded Apollo 15 and spent three days calling the starkly beautiful mountains of the lunar Apennines his home, said as he stepped onto the lunar surface "...and this is exploration at its greatest!" Now, any prospect of a similar great human adventure to Mars, the most inviting of the planets, is as remote as Apollo was to the Wright brothers. Yet it is technically feasible, lacking only political will.

Space has become the province of big business with TV and mobile phone communications becoming increasingly space-based; and there is nothing wrong with that. Commercial pressures have always been important to the subsequent opening up of a new frontier. However, the inspirational human spearhead is no longer pushing out. The fear of risk, failure and financial cost keeps us looking inward while a new world and new vistas await our coming.

When Pete Conrad died last week, the discussion groups on the internet buzzed with an outpouring of appreciation for his flamboyant personality and huge respect for his talents as a space traveller. A contributor to one of these discussions reminded us all that with our nine remaining lunar explorers now reaching their late sixties and early seventies, it would not be so long, perhaps a decade or so, before there will be no human walking on this planet who has also walked on the Moon. I find that a profoundly sad thought.