The most pure form of aloneness ever experienced: flying solo on the dark side of the moon, no communication possible, almost every other human 250,000 miles away, apart from the two men who walk on the other side of the moon below you. The vastness of space suddenly fills with previously-invisible stars, as you pass into the moon’s shadow. Michael Collins did not resent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leaving him behind in the command module. He experienced a wonder that only a few people will ever witness.
Some of the later men did felt frustration at travelling a quarter of a million miles, and orbiting just 69 miles from the lunar surface, without landing. It was worse for the astronauts who trained for years and never even went into space. And what of the wives who were told, ‘you worry about the custard, I’ll worry about the flying’?
The wives are rarely part of the story. Nor the 400,000 pilots, scientists, technicians, managers, medics and engineers who made the Apollo programme happen. The moon landings were extraordinary then and seem, if anything, even more extraordinary now. It took just eight years from Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon, and bring him back safely, for it to happen. And within four years it was all over. The collective knowledge dissipated. It may never happen again. The future is not what it was.
With Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon: the voyages of the Apollo astronauts, the project has got the book it deserves. I adored the details of the flights – the burn, the wobbling on lift-off, the daunting control panels, the rush of re-entry – after failure after pretend failure in the simulator during training. The competition for a seat on a flight, the camaraderie or toleration during the long flights. The thrills of the geologists that so many moon rocks were coming into their hands, the frustration that there was never enough time to collect more. The drive to do it not because it was easy but because it was hard.
Chaikin is good on the personalities involved, and has interviewed all but one of the men who went to the moon, and many of the wives and support team. For the most part, the astronauts are arrogant and driven loners. There’s no over-achieving like going to the moon. Would you want to be the first man on the moon or, rather, the last? Neil Armstrong spent less than 24 hours on the moon, and his moonwalk lasted just two and a half hours. Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt spent seven days there, and had three moonwalks lasting over 22 hours in total. They were utterly exhausted.
The pacing of the tale of each mission is so perfect that I caught my breath when Neil Armstrong was flying Eagle in the last stages of flight – the lunar module was not where it was supposed to be, the boulders were too big, there were only 60 seconds of fuel remaining. Would they make it?
Chaikin, rightly, is very interested in the what-it-is-like-ness of being on the moon. Some astronauts wrote poetry afterwards. Some turned to God, some turned to drink. I listened to this as an audiobook. It made it easy to absorb the atmosphere, let the details wash over me. Another brilliant feature of this audiobook is Bronson Pinchot’s hypnotic pronunciation of the word ‘Moon’. Mooooun. Sample sentence: ‘How was he supposed to sleep now he’d landed on the MOOOOUN!?’ He says it a lot. Moooun.
The crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders – were the first three men to leave Earth’s orbit. They travelled for three days to reach the moon, orbited it ten times, on Christmas Eve 1968, and flew back. No one had ever been that far from home. During their mission they took the famous photo of Earthrise. Whilst the moon was spectacular, all the returning moon voyagers were particularly struck by our own planet: the magnificent, fragile and unlikely ‘blue marble’ in the vast blackness of space.
Chaikin ends with a heartfelt lament for the collective ambition, boldness, daring ingenuity, determination and personalities that made it happen, and that, given that it may not happen again, have been let down.
I look up at the moon and think: people went there! To the Moooun. When it’s a full moon on earth, they see a crescent earth on the moon. Did you know, I say, since I landed on the moon (vicariously), that morning on the moon lasts 7 days? Did you know that 24 men went to the moon, and 12 walked on it? Did you know they only see Earth rise when they orbit the moon, not when they stand on it? If you would read this book, I could shut up about the moon. Except I don’t want to shut up about the moon.