One step beyond 1969, earth's giant leap year

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The Independent Culture
A few days ago, William Safire came clean in The New York Times. He's a political columnist now, but on 21 July 1969 he was a speech-writer in the Nixon White House. Frank Borman had called him a few days earlier and said that, really, there had to be a contingency plan. The President had to be ready to say the right thing even if it all went wrong. After all, two days earlier, in the state of Massachusetts, a guy had driven a car off a bridge and into the water. Such things happen. In the late Sixties they seemed to happen all the time, and all at the same time. When that car had gone into the water, Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned.

A year earlier, Frank Borman had commanded Apollo 8, the first manned flight round the Moon. Getting a good look-see at the dark side of the Moon. A year later, Borman was Nasa's liaison with the White House, and so he had called Safire. Because another Apollo mission - do you recollect its number? - was about to make the first manned landing on the Moon. Neil Armstrong, its commander, would step out on the ashen surface of our satellite. To be followed by? Leaving whom in the command module? It was Apollo 11, and Buzz Aldrin was No Two on the ground. Michael Collins stayed in the module. Thirty years ago. "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Of course, the whole trip was difficult, expensive and scary - though that was never Nasa's scenario; they played it all as going to plan, AOK, so that it came as a shock when, on those few occasions, the guys in Houston went mad with applause and flat-out relief. You could see then that it was also dangerous, far-fetched and - well, was it even necessary?

Anyway, this was the outside chance and the ugly possibility: that the lunar landing module might not get back off the Moon, much less dock with the mother ship. Suppose the engine, or whatever, didn't start. Some date! 238,857 miles from home. "You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the President," Borman had urged Safire. "In the event of mishaps." Because if the engine didn't fire, there wasn't another way of getting the guys back up. They would have had to play a little more golf, eat whatever was left of their rations, and... It was agreed that there would be a close-down in communications. You wonder, now, whether or not Armstrong's first words on the Moon were his own or a Nasa scriptwriter's, and whether he had also been coached or primed with last words. So much of those missions seemed planned to the last millimetre; so much in the men seemed to be subservient to the plan.

And in 1969, I think, the world would have accepted the shut-down in communication, communication being something Houston controlled absolutely. Today, CNN would likely have its own link and we'd get every minute on the way to the last minute. "I believe Captain Scott is sleeping now. The blizzard flaps at the last pages of his journal and we can see the words: `For God's sake, look after our people?' Don't go away. We'll be back in a moment with the Oates story!"

A part of us could imagine that grim silence. Surely it was dangerous. In l967 Gus Grissom had been killed, along with two others, on the ground, when Apollo 1 burned up. In years to come, there would be that prolonged static roar when the badly damaged Apollo 13 went through re-entry, and at last uttered again. And then, on 28 January 1986, on live coverage, in a clear blue sky, Challenger ignited and all seven people on board were killed. Nothing's been the same since then. But that day - in real emergency, for by then such flights were taken for granted - Peggy Noonan gave Ronald Reagan words to say, something about the dead "who had slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God".

And where were you? Well, many of you were not born yet, and may look upon the petty intrusion on the Moon's calm as something as quaint as Bleriot or Vasco da Gama. I was in a restaurant named Bistingo, on Old Compton Street. There was a party, though I can't remember what it was for. But word went round the noisy restaurant that it had happened. My wife and I went home and saw the footage later - for, as I recall, the technology then could not do it "live". We didn't cheer much, but there was something eerie in the stillness of the Moon, and the way it ignored the automaton nature of the astronauts. Was the Moon a set? Was this all a show put on to keep us happy? Such uncertainties were growing.

They were brave men, doing much more than their duty, but I was one of those who were alarmed at their numbness, their faint absence of untidy humanity, the programmatic way in which thought and feeling were handled with the same efficiency that was applied to their waste products. I thought Armstrong's line was flat, dusty and windy. I wanted something wilder, stranger, out of control. Because for several years by then, we had seen the same sort of American crews stepping in the shit in Vietnam, with all the same apparatus of technology behind them.

In the Sixties and Seventies, it was tempting to think that the vague claims for space exploration - that it was there, that you didn't quite know until you looked, that it was human nature to quest - were blinds to escape or deny so many earthly situations; not just Vietnam, but Ireland, say (fighting was to break out in Londonderry on 12 August), the situation in Rhodesia, the failure of Prague '68, the eternal Middle East, famine, poverty and even Helter Skelter (the wrath that came out of the LA Hills on 9-10 August). Maybe it was naive economics to argue that the monies spent by Nasa might have eased some of those problems. But was it any more innocent than to assert that space science had brought us Teflon and many other advantages?

Was the slight indentation in all that vast unknown a moving event, or was it not much more than setting out from Trafalgar Square for Nepal, and getting as far as Westminster Bridge? The astronauts themselves were far from sexy; in so many ways they seemed like the zombies from 2001: A Space Odyssey, already so grooved in technical running as to be out of it. But, in terms of popular fiction, the Moon landing did seem to dispel the idea of the spaceman as an adventurer. What followed were films in which extraterrestrials (scaly with charm) came to us - somehow their transit was more rapid; somehow they had divined our need for adult toys. Thus Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, and then, later on, the listening devices of Contact and the dream of Daddy come back.

For myself, I feel now as I did then that humankind cannot consider external rescue, or damnation. By far the most grown-up entertainment about all those high-minded space programmes was Philip Kaufman's movie The Right Stuff, which showed them as a continuation of politics and publicity, as well as a process in which wry, gum-chewing heroism (the fighter pilot persona) was changed into "spam in a can" ("guy tossed up in the air at violent speed, crossing his fingers that he wouldn't make a human error").

Meanwhile, as our sense of space grows larger, so its silence becomes more characteristic. Our radio signals are not answered, and if anything is going on another long journey, it's a camera on wheels to bring back a bit of Heavenly Geographic. There seems to be neither gold nor water out there, much less the answer to who wrote Shakespeare, or a trick for getting Protestants and Catholics to live together.

There is one discovery out there that seems to me instructive. I am thinking of the view of Earth. Nearly every astronaut seemed surprised by that - maybe the radiance of kingfisher colours was not in the script. But 30 years ago, for all the novelty, Armstrong and Aldrin intuited that there were no good restaurants on the Moon, that golf was a better game at Carnoustie or Augusta, and that the Earth had a shine to it enough to suggest that it was meant to be something special, a stage where the great play was enacted.

I've just written a book about Nevada, a desert state where many people entertain great notions about aliens visiting Earth and stealing some of us, making ready for some great "quickening" or invasion. That would be harmless enough as a hobby if it didn't divert us from Nevadan realities - the stain of nuclear testing, the peril of nuclear waste. We are escapists, of course; horror stories move us more than horrific realities. But I think that, 30 years ago - at least for this age - we opened and closed the book on space, and had the means of seeing that our proper subject was mankind and unkind, and Earth. The Challenger crew didn't touch the face of God, and no deity will rescue us.

It is up to us - it always has been - to determine whether Earth is a place of surly bonds, or a centre of light. So going to the Moon only let us appreciate the great point of view the Man in the Moon has always enjoyed: our show.