You had to have been alive at the time. Reading about it now, way after the event just isn’t the same. Today, we all know it happened, and that it worked. You can read the last page of the book on the Apollo missions if you want to.
That evening, we sat at home, not knowing if the biggest scientific act of faith that man had ever attempted, was going to end in a huge pile of tears.
We’ve had all the build up over a period of years, and 40 years on, if I look outside my family, the single greatest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life was the Apollo 11 programme which culminated in the Eagle touching down at Tranquility Base. I simply can’t let today go past without heartily doffing my cap at the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
If you were young then (which I was), interested in things aeronautical (which I was), fascinated by astronomy (which I was), liked Science Fiction (which I did), thought that the Moon was made of Green Cheese (which I didn't) then you couldn’t help but look on with awe at the goings on in the Apollo programme. Nothing remotely like it had been seen before.
We watched the development of the massive Saturn rockets, their successes and their failures. We looked on in horror at the gruesome suddenness of the events surrounding Apollo 1 (or 4 depending on your numbering system). We followed the fairy tale, exquisitely timed trip of Apollo 8 around the Moon, which made Christmas 1968 utterly and truly magical for me at least. And then the slow build-up through Apollo 9 and 10 to the launch of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
Throughout all this we’d had the BBC doing what they did so well then in the way they told the unfolding story of it all, the perfectly chosen music (at least it was then!) of Also Sprach Zarathustra, James Burke and Patrick Moore doing the words, and all of us watching the amazing “Journey into Space” images which seemed at that time, to be literally from another world. I lapped it all up.
I don’t know how many people in the world watched the landing. It was the first all night broadcast the BBC had ever done. My wife and I sat riveted as it all unfolded. 3.56am was the time when we finally drew breath that night. We were sitting in a comfortable room in Surrey, England, and we felt as if we’d gone through the wringer. I recall, unbelievably, reading years later that Armstrong’s heart rate did not exceed 70 beats per minute during the landing. He should have been where we were!
That was 40 years ago. Of the twelve astronauts who have ever set foot on the Moon, three are dead. The youngest of those remaining will be 74 years old on his next birthday, and who knows, when the time comes to celebrate the Golden Anniversary, whether any of them will still be with us to join in.
I’ve written about this before, following an excellent book called “Moondust” where Andrew Smith, the author chased down the remaining astronauts whose feet had touched the Moon’s surface, to see what had happened to them since their voyages there.
Seeing that most of the men who were chosento become astronauts were all selected from the test pilot/fighter pilot spectrum, it is a bit surprising to see the way many of their lives have turned off in radically different directions.
Armstrong is a recluse. Charlie Duke is a motivational speaker on things spiritual. Alan Bean is a painter. Ed Mitchell has devoted his life to studying human consciousness and psychic and paranormal phenomena. David Scott is another sort of recluse, having fallen from grace in NASA’s eyes. John Young turned into a professional Space visitor – flying 6 times into space. Harrison Schmitt became a Republican Senator.
Most seem to have had an obvious difficulty coming to terms with the psychological, the spiritual and perhaps the metaphysical issues thrown up by what they did. Not surprising really. As James Lovell said talking about that amazing image of the almost insignificant Earth bathed in blue light above the Moon’s horizon, "Everything that I ever knew - my life, my loved ones, the Navy - everything, the whole world was behind my thumb." Talk about getting it all into perspective.
How do you top that? The answer is very, very simple – you don’t. And that’s what I suspect caused the subsequent turmoil in all these men’s minds.
Also, maybe, without realising it, we’ve seen the pinnacle of man exploring away from the Earth. Man has never travelled as fast since the Apollo 17 module returned to Earth. The thought of starting to spend trillions of dollars to go to Mars simply “because it’s there” doesn’t hang together today. If you look back with a boring Accountant’s hat on, it’s not at all easy to justify Apollo’s $20 Billion (and that was in 1960s money) price tag. A decent push into computer development, the Fuel cell (which still isn’t a commercial proposition) and a bit of CNC Machine tool expansion? I don’t think so.
The majority of Americans today think they’re currently spending more on Space than they should, and given the Financial chaos engulfing us all, it’s almost impossible to see anyone standing up and speaking the way Kennedy did some 45 years ago. The only real reason you can come up with to do it is it simply because you wanted to. And you’d need to convince the rest of America that they needed to forego a raft of new hospitals, roads, war expenditures and face a pile of tax increases to even consider it.
Can you even imagine Obama uttering words anything like these - “…. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on Mars and returning him safely to the earth…..
No, I can’t either, although I have a real, real wish that he would. It made life so exciting.