Apollo 11

The great uncertainty of Apollo 11

Looking back at Apollo 11's mission 40 years ago, E&T wonders whether the momentous flight was merely the first chapter of an even greater story that has yet to unfold.

Even as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the most amazing voyage in history, the suspicion lingers that something doesn't feel right. Whenever people talk about Apollo 11's mission to land men on the Moon during July 1969, we hear mock-ironic accusations of faked photos, and TV transmissions beamed from secret studios on Earth.

The conspiracy theories reflect unease about Apollo's place in history. It refuses to fit into the usual pattern of progress. Just think what normally happens to technology during the course of four decades. In 1886, Karl Benz patented the first automobile. Forty years later, American industry was manufacturing four million of them a year.

The Wright Brothers flew the first human-carrying powered aircraft in 1903. Forty years later, air travel was routine.

In the 1950s, a handful of institutions had computers. Forty years later, they saturated modern life. And so on.

The 'spin-off' arguments for lunar exploration have been well rehearsed. Yes, the Apollo adventure did indeed nourish countless areas of the American economy that funded it: speeding up developments in software, integrated circuitry and precision welding, while promoting more subtle skills such as personnel management and risk analysis. These benefits are appreciated by historians, but haven't made much of an impact on the public. The more obvious goodies that we might have expected from Apollo seem to be missing. We don't all have rockets in our garages and we can't all travel to the Moon.

The British songwriter Billy Bragg said recently: "When I was a kid in the 1960s, I was excited when they told me, 'Soon, Man will be on the Moon!' I didn't think they meant just one man." To be fair, a dozen Apollo astronauts explored the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, but Billy has a point. Whatever happened to the Space Age for the rest of us?

Grand illusions

The essential concepts for rocket exploration were well-known long before the Apollo era. As the famous space champion Arthur C Clarke pointed out in 1969: "No achievement in human affairs was ever so well documented before the fact as space travel." The flaw in the plan was simple. Where was the trade? Ships could be sent into space, but what could they be expected to bring back as a return on the huge investment?

In 1961, as John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev glowered at each other across the Cold War superpower divide, the economic arguments surrounding astronaut adventures became strangely inverted, so that the drawbacks became the justifications. By accepting the vast expense of rocket voyages without prospect of any financial return, Russia and America set out to show what their rival societies might be capable of down on Earth: how much more they could do than merely running their domestic economies or equipping their armies.

But it's easy to dismiss the 1960s 'Moon Race' cliché as merely the brainchild of those wily political opportunists. Neither Russia nor America at that time would have reached for space, let alone the Moon, if that prize hadn't also beguiled the many millions of ordinary people they were trying to impress with their propaganda campaigns. Unfortunately, the public's hopes for space were founded on misleading images from science-fiction magazines and movies. And in that cruel truth lies Apollo's ultimate tragedy.

In the opening episode of the television series 'Star Trek', screened in 1966, space was an infinite wonderland of alien civilisations comfortingly akin to our own. The rockets of 'Thunderbirds' did valourous deeds, while Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey', released on the eve of Apollo's first flights to the Moon, took for granted a future in which we would build orbiting hotels, lunar cities, and nuclear-powered spaceships destined for Jupiter and beyond.

Movie critic Stanley Kaufman wasn't convinced by these grandiose predictions. "Our essential experience of space is limited to the view through a window, a camera or a helmet visor," he wrote. "Space only seems large. For human beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry firmament, the idea of space travel gives us claustrophobia."

Kaufman had hit the bull's-eye. For the public, the splendour of Apollo 11 was reduced to grainy images on little TV sets and a homely succession of media pundits repeating the NASA jargon like parrots: Lunar Orbit Insertions, Extra-Vehicular Activities, Translation Manoeuvres and Trans-Earth Injections conducted at Time-Nominal intervals. After the initial excitement of the landing died down, a terrible sense of anticlimax began to take hold. NASA's endless acronyms had dulled everyone's senses, for this was not a language that ordinary people really wanted to hear from those embarking on such an epic adventure.

The language of Apollo

In his celebrated memoir, 'Carrying the Fire', Apollo 11's command module pilot Michael Collins recalled worrying about the language barrier even as he concentrated on the switch settings to blast the ship towards the Moon. "If we're going to leave the gravitational field of Earth, what are we going to say? We should invoke Christopher Columbus, or a primordial reptile coming up out of the swamps onto dry land for the first time, or go back through the sweep of history and say something meaningful. Instead, all we had was our technical jargon."

If an astronaut was dismayed by his own terminology, just imagine its demoralising effect on the rest of humanity. The renowned writer Norman Mailer visited NASA's Florida launch complex and saw a technocratic army of white middle-class male conformists sitting at their control panels in neat, obedient rows, most of them dressed alike in white shirts and black ties. Listening to them as they readied Apollo 11 for launch, he thought that "their strength apparently derived from being cogs in a machine. They spoke in a language not fit for a computer of events that might yet dislocate eternity".

Forty years later, it seems that eternity is in no danger of dislocation. Apollo 11 made remarkably little impact in human affairs. Mailer was unfashionably frank in his reporting from Mission Control as the Moon walk came to an end, and the lunar lander prepared to take off and rejoin the mothership. "I was bored, and so were many others in the press room. We all knew the engine burns would succeed and Apollo would go into the proper orbit. There seemed no question of failure. I could not forgive the astronauts their resolute avoidance of an heroic posture."

This was a man who, just four days earlier, had seen the Saturn V take off and gasped, ecstatically: "I had a poor moment of vertigo at the thought that Man now had something with which to speak to God! A ship of flames was on its way to the Moon." In the four days between that rapture and the actual landing, NASA managed to lose his attention - and that of many millions of other people besides. What went wrong?

Neither NASA nor its astronauts were trained for the time-wasting ambiguities of art, literature or poetry. The problem remains that poetry was exactly what the rest of the world needed if it was to appreciate Apollo's achievements more fully. As Collins remarked after his mission: "A future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher. Then we might get a much better idea of what we saw."

Now that the Saturn's thunder has faded and all our science-fiction dreams of gaudy aliens and starships have been relegated to the dustbin, we are left with an embarrassing truth: 40 years after the event, we still haven't decided on the meaning of Apollo 11's voyage.

We still don't know if it was a unique moment in Cold War history, never to be repeated, or merely the first chapter of some even greater story that has yet to unfold.

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