On July 16th 1969 Apollo X1 launched 3 astronauts on a historic mission into space: the goal, to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. These last few days I’ve enjoyed learning more about Apollo 11’s story and seeing it through fresh eyes, thanks to three fabulous pieces of film. I’d like to share some thoughts about them here.
By chance, I discovered the “Apollo11 Movie” was showing in selected cinemas for a limited period, none of them local to where I live. Luckily I was on a whistle stop visit to Glasgow and managed to see it at the Film Theatre. Shortly after, at the local VUE cinema I attended a “one night only” Q&A viewing of the documentary film “Armstrong”. Then a few days ago, I watched a docu-drama on BBC2 called “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back”. For “Armstrong” Neil’s family provided interviews and access to private home movies, whilst former work colleagues’ and friends, shared their memories of the man who made history. It greatly helped in understanding Neil a little bit more. The other two films used previously unseen footage mixed with recognisable archive material, and declassified audio files giving access to crew dialogue never heard before, which allowed a fresh perspective on events.
Sitting watching the “Apollo11 Movie” the sheer magnitude of the operation was overwhelming. I always knew the rocket was big, BUT the sight of workmen walking in front/alongside the platform taking Apollo XI to the launch pad, was stunning. The enormous platform tracks moving so slowly, giving the sense of barely perceptible movement emphasised just how huge the platform and its rocket load were. How tiny those men seemed in the vastness of it all, rather like the photo showing the lunar module on the moon surface, with a tiny Earth hanging above them in the blackness of space. Similarly the lunar module appeared miniscule against the moon backdrop on its return to the command module. The sheer size and weight of the rocket was unwittingly summed up by Neil’s eldest son in the “Armstrong” documentary. He couldn’t see the actual rocket on the launch pad after ignition, because it was engulfed in clouds of billowing smoke and initially rose very slowly. In every film the noise created by the fireball of burning rocket fuel was tremendous. The background music in the “Apollo 11 Movie” was powerfully atmospheric, complimented the spoken audio and beautifully enhanced the pictures seen. I wasn’t aware that as the astronauts were climbing into the capsule ready for lift-off, engineers were still at work fixing a critical valve that was showing a malfunction! I knew there was little fuel left in the lunar module as it approached the moon surface, but was shocked to read 16 seconds worth in the film. During the Q&A segment after “Armstrong” I heard it was 18 seconds, but both films agreed that less than 5% capacity was left in the tank.
The documentary regarding Neil Armstrong was informative, evocative and heartbreaking at times. The footage of Neil and Janet with their first two children Eric and Karen was particularly poignant, as Karen developed a brain tumour and died aged three on her parents wedding anniversary. Everyone was devastated, and clearly Neil threw himself into his work even more as a way of coping, or perhaps avoiding the emotional fallout. His wife Janet, the glue of the family kept things going, and had another son Mark shortly after Karen’s passing. Throughout the interviews it was obvious Neil’s long absences for work and his reluctance to talk about much of anything, hugely impacted on Janet.
From his first 20 cent toy aeroplane Armstrong was obsessed with flight, gaining his pilot’s licence before his driver’s one. He got a navy scholarship to university, served in Korea and returned afterwards to complete his studies. From there he went on to fly F-15s before joining the space program. NASA protocol would have had Buzz Aldrin as first man, but Neil’s more measured quiet and introspective nature seems to have been considered more appropriate, considering the magnitude and significance of the moment. And so Buzz was relegated. I wonder if it was him who saluted the US flag after President Nixon’s phone call. I hadn’t fully appreciated the flag salute, until I recalled that Armstrong was termed a civilian astronaut. I thought they were either all military or civilian, having left the services to enter the space program. Another thing that surprised me, was the fact there had been great debate about whether the US or UN flag should be unfurled on the moon. Neil apparently said that “others cleverer and better educated than him made the decision”. Dumb debate I thought, American mission, money, vision and astronauts, so a no brainer for me. A beautiful song played as the credits rolled for “Armstrong”, and during the Q&A I discovered it was a poem written by Neil Armstrong’s son Mark and sung by Mark’s daughter. It was a fitting tribute.
“Eight Days: to the Moon & Back” was an intriguing mix of new and archive material with added dramatic enactment. The first fascinating insight was the number of hours in space each astronaut had accumulated before Apollo XI: Aldrin over 90, Collins over 70 and Armstrong barely over 13 hours. This may have been partly due to Neil’s uncomfortable ride on Gemini VIII which spun uncontrollably after docking with a target vehicle, resulting in the mission being curtailed. Talked about in the “Armstrong” film, Neil showed great presence of mind to save the situation. His eldest son recalled how NASA had installed a squawk box at home, so mission control transmissions could be heard. When things turned sour with possible fatal consequences, the squawk box went silent because NASA didn’t want to broadcast bad news. Janet Armstrong went to mission control to find out what was going on, and was denied access or any news. Eric mused that he wouldn’t have liked to be the one facing his mother’s wrath that day.
I was reminded of a book called “The Astronaut Wives Club” that told the space program story, from the wives point of view. What was clear to me was the seemingly complete dereliction of duty NASA displayed toward the families. Effectively space program astronauts and their wives were launched into a celebrity kind of existence, without any media training, psychological, medical or pastoral care for the wives and families. The Armstrong squawk box saga was a prime example of this blasé attitude. The insatiable lust for any kind of news during the Apollo XI mission required the crew to make frequent TV broadcasts from space. And when they returned to Earth, a worldwide tour engulfed them and put them into a situation they were neither prepared nor trained for. It’s something of a miracle that Neil Armstrong with his few but pinpoint accurate words, had a way of summing up things beautifully. The sentiment “how vulnerable the Earth looked, how it must be protected not from natural disaster, or technology but from man himself” I found incredibly meaningful.
Two surprising nuggets of information came to light regarding Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on this historic mission. More than once it was acknowledged that Aldrin helped enable the lunar module to launch from the moon surface. A vital switch was broken and Aldrin fixed it with his felt tip pen. One report mentioned that Buzz found a piece of plastic on the lunar surface, which may have come off the module control panel due to a knock from a space suit. He picked it up and replaced it with the help of his pen. The second point I found extremely moving, and was reported in the “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back” program. Aldrin took a piece of communion bread from his church to the moon, so he could give thanks with his Sunday meal taken on the lunar surface. The audio accompaniment to this had Aldrin requesting “that the people of the world take a moment to give thanks in any way they feel appropriate”. A dramatised segment depicted Aldrin taking his communion bread, before we saw real footage of Walter Cronkite the US news anchor covering the moon landing, bowing his head in silent prayer. I was deeply moved at this point, much the same as Cronkite himself had been when the lunar module safely landed. The great news man admitted to being lost for words and was seen to brush away a tear. The enormity of the whole thing still gets to me as well, and I shed tears too. Who wouldn’t be emotional witnessing humankind’s greatest technical achievement?