Author’s note: A year ago, up at my parents’ house for Christmas, I wrote a piece for a quarterly magazine called Nude. Shortly afterwards the couple who ran the magazine found that they were to be parents, so — no more Nude. The piece was a joy to write, because the loose brief — “magnificent obsessions” — allowed me to choose a subject that would be, well, fun to write about.
There are many examples of enterprises which have involved mind-boggling levels of dedication to a goal which was abstract, pointless, stupid or even unachievable — the Watts Towers, the first ascent of Everest, crossing America on a pogo stick — but I decided to go large and write about the moon landings. This was just before the 40th anniversary. There wasn’t much information readily available at my parents’ place, which remains stuck somewhere in the 1970s, a long way from the Internet. No problem, though. I wasn’t particularly interested in facts and figures. I wanted to address the spirit of the thing, its monumental scale and relatively modest aim. So I got to typing, drawing a few bits of physics, economics, and history from Andrew Chaikin’s comprehensive and engaging book A Man on the Moon. Mainly I was looking at the sheer demented splendour of the thing.
But Nude, of course, was defunct, so the article languished in the depths of my hard drive for a year, with no place to go — until now! In a few days I’ll be boarding a train back to the past, to spend a couple of weeks in the real world, so…here’s a present for all Nervous Breakdown crew. Have a good [insert holiday] and a [insert adjective] new year (if you’re on the Gregorian calendar).
“Of course it was all fake.”
The idea that the moon landings were staged on a Hollywood studio backlot is the best known and least original conspiracy theory out there. And it’s always preceded by that insufferable of course, as though anyone who actually believes in the Apollo missions is a credulous simpleton. So trusting and naïve; haven’t you seen the…converging shadows or whatever the irrefutable evidence is supposed to be? No, I haven’t. I have seen Capricorn One though. So shut up.
In the spirit of fairness I’ll look into this later. Maybe I’ll also find out what a backlot is.
While the smugness is contemptible, the thing that really sets my teeth on edge is the mean-spirited nature on display; choosing to believe that the whole exercise was a sordid little piece of trickery, rather than a monumental act of –- literally –- lunacy. Why? Why choose (yes, choose) the ultra-cynical version of events that paints a picture of a soulless controlling hand, pulling the wool over the world’s eyes? Do you have no faith in humanity? Apparently not. However, in 1961, before My Lai, Altamont, and Easy Rider, America was still dreaming its chromed, finned, atomic dream. At the wheel was the sharp-suited figure of JFK, the pin-up prez, and he had a birthday wish. On May 25th, just a few days before his 44th, he said something about what he wanted, something about getting a man (he didn’t say who) on the surface of the moon by the end of the decade.
As Eddie Izzard noted, we (Britain) couldn’t get a man in a tracksuit up a ladder (“Hello, Swindon? Come in, Swindon…”, ”Yes, hello astronaut…er, laddernaut…”). But over the pond, the kind of spirit which is now just hollow corporate rhetoric (Where do you want to go today?, Just do it) was alive and well. It was like a pub challenge — Guys, guys, listen right. You know what’d be cool? No, shut up yeah. We should totally go to the moon! –- but one of those rare beer-fueled ideas that survives, thrives even, in the cold glare of sobriety. Dude, you were talking about going to the moon. You were all, like, rockets and capsules and stuff, you loser!
Well? Why not? Not because it’s there, the usual reason given for climbing a mountain — but also for, say, tagging a bus shelter — but because it’ll be awesome! And one in the eye for the Russkies, and further evidence of American superiority, etc., etc. And more blue cheese than you can shake a stick at! Let’s go! Glib, yes, but as J.G. Ballard said: “Project Apollo was the last great act undertaken by the United States out of a sense of optimism.”
And so it began. Eight years of Big Science, tens of billions of dollars (‘60s dollars –- that’s trillions of ‘00s bucks), but, above all, graft. Sweat, elbow grease, the western world’s cleverest synapses crackling and sparking into the small hours, all aided hardly at all by computer technology. Design it, check the figures. Double check the figures. Build it, test it. Get a new pad of paper and a fresh pencil from stores. Fail again. Fail better.
Returning (briefly) to the naysayers: I’ve looked at the studio fakery “theories,” and they’re contemptible. Each one is easily explained or simply ridiculous from the start. So: Shut up.
You do actually believe there are man-made objects in space, right? Satellites and that? Bouncing phone calls and America’s Next Top Model around the globe? Well. Those were put there by rockets, and from 1967 to 1973, the biggest, fieriest rockets ever, the Saturn Vs, blasted off from the Florida coast. Gargantuan flaming monsters thundering up into the sky, faster than a tall building in their natty two-tone paint. Spaceships! Actual spaceships! Well, the little pointy dustbin on top was a spaceship, the rest was just a 350-foot, 3000-ton mule, but still. Is it such a stretch to imagine Neil, Buzz and Mike going along for the ride, venturing out a little further than the spiky Sputniks? Just having a look round, y’know. (“Mike” was the designated driver, command module pilot Michael Collins, who remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface –- the space equivalent of waiting in the car while the other guys get the beers.)
The closer the mission came to its objective (its first objective, that is; they had to return to Earth) the more human it became. The scale diminished, infernal combustion and burning hypersonic air became the gentle drift and silence of space until, finally, the lander sallied forth, a preposterous Heath Robinson (or Rube Goldberg) foil-wrapped washing machine. You have to hand it to them; like selecting a bathtub as your vehicle for crossing the English Channel, it looked inadequate, inappropriate, eccentric and downright dangerous — but dementedly heroic! Off they went, in their silly triangle-windowed crate with legs, the culmination of the boldest, maddest, most ambitious journey ever made: Two men in a box.
It was no bodge job, mind. The astronauts were intimately familiar with every system in their ship, because they were part of the design team. Not mere fighter jocks, they also had advanced degrees –- often more than one –- in aeronautics, astrophysics, nuclear science and other clever stuff. Every system had a backup, and everything was pared down to the bare bones, not to save weight but to minimise the possibility of malfunction. For instance, the main rocket engine in the top dustbin had no pump – propellants were pushed around by compressed helium — and no ignition system. The two halves of the propellant mix were hypergols, materials so disgustingly volatile that they exploded on contact. Everything except the combustion chamber and the exhaust bell had a double. It was a bomb, a bathyscaphe, a hall of mirrors and a box of tricks, held up by belt, braces and skyhooks.
From Georges Melies’ seminal Le Voyage Dans La Lune, to the ridiculous Space 1999 and the sublime Space Argument cartoons from Modern Toss (“Stick this flag in over there”, “You fucking do it”), the moon has been the inspiration, often the setting, for a tremendous body of art. The greatest contribution was inadvertent: film footage and still photographs taken by remote cameras and the astronauts themselves. Even now, elements of those images carry massive iconographic weight; flaming interstage connector rings detaching and drifting back towards Earth, a grid of crosses framing the picture, the lunar surface rolling past, a Michelin man leaping up into the clear black sky…adventure, anticipation, exploration, technology, functioning at the absolute limits of possibility. Sheer joy –- why else would you jump up and down?
Look at the beautiful 70mm Hasselblad pictures, shot in barely-filtered sunlight; no pollution, hardly any atmosphere. All we see are cumbersome suits and flawless reflective visors. Inside each suit, behind the anonymous gold screen, is a man. He’s a fighter pilot and a rocket scientist, a husband and father –- so what’s he doing on this airless rock, wearing a goldfish bowl? He can’t just swim back up to the surface if he decides he doesn’t like it. There’s no safety net or panic button, the only air available is in a few cans, and yet…here he is. Imagine the fear. You can’t tell me that those astronauts, however highly trained, however tight-jawed and gung-ho, lacked the imagination to be shitting bricks. The value of being able to see each other, to hear other voices, and to have a job to do, must have been inestimable. And yet they chose, competed, worked for years to be the ones in that unique situation. Why? Because they just had to check it out. Because it was going to be awesome!
It really happened. And what was the driving force behind this titanic endeavour? Dreams. Faith, hope, bright-eyed, feverish visions of monstrous thunder and airless silence, reality-blurring speed and lucid stillness. The mass of statistics – velocity, distance, thrust, fuel consumption, g-forces –- fit no frame of reference. Dust, rocks, more rocks, Earth appearing over the horizon. A vast pyramid of industry, finance, parts, labour, publicity, paperwork, politics and 400,000 people with –- eventually — a man at the top, taking one small step. Stick this flag in over there.