Mankind has been fascinated by the Moon for millennia. We’ve worshipped it, planted crops according to its cycles and written poems about it. But until July 1969, no one had ever set foot upon that eerie, silvery landscape. It was, as Neil Armstrong memorably put it: “One small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.” Looking ahead to next year’s anniversary, we asked five luminaries from the worlds of science, academia, art and design to recall their impressions of that epochal moment.
Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge
Among my favourite things to read during my childhood in the 1950s was a comic called The Eagle, especially the adventures of Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future, where the brilliant artwork depicted orbiting cities, jet-packs and alien invaders. When spaceflight became real, the suits worn by NASA astronauts (and their Soviet cosmonaut counterparts) were therefore familiar, as were the routines of launching, docking, and so forth.
My generation avidly followed the succession of heroic pioneering exploits: Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight, Alexey Leonov’s first space walk, and then, of course, the lunar landings. I recall a visit to my home town by John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit. He was asked what he was thinking while in the rocket’s nose cone, awaiting launch. He responded, “I was thinking that there were 20,000 parts in this rocket, and each was made by the lowest bidder.” (Glenn later became a US senator, and, later still, the oldest astronaut when, aged 77, he became part of the STS-95 Space Shuttle crew.)
Only 12 years elapsed between the flight of the Soviet Sputnik 1 – the first artificial object to go into orbit – and the historic “one small step” on the lunar surface in 1969. I never look at the Moon without being reminded of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Their exploits seem even more heroic in retrospect, when we realise how they depended on primitive computing and untested equipment. Indeed, President Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire had drafted a speech to be given if the astronauts had crash-landed on the Moon or were stranded there: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. [They] know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.” The Apollo programme remains, half a century later, the high point of human ventures into space. Reprinted with kind permission of Martin Rees from On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, published by Princeton University Press
James R Hansen, writer, historian and author of First Man, the book on which the recent film about Neil Armstrong was based
When I think back to my boyhood and space, one of my earliest memories is the weekend that Sputnik launched. I would have been only five years old, but I remember visiting my aunt and uncle and my cousins. It was a weekend and all the adults were watching television. I sensed there was something that was making them nervous. They were watching the TV, then going out looking up at the sky, and saying, “It’s high.”
This was an era when children spent a lot of time outdoors, unlike today, when they are in front of screens and their handheld devices. The night sky was something I was used to looking up at and of course in the 1950s and ’60s there was a lot of interest in UFOs. The night sky was a mysterious thing, and that Sputnik weekend it become even more mysterious to a five-year-old. Then the United States put up an inflatable satellite known as the Echo balloon. It was an inflatable satellite and you could watch it in the night sky, even see it move. I remember being at one of my older brother’s night baseball games and people in the crowd looking up and following the movement of the Echo. This would have been around 1960 or ’61. I do know, again, that as a boy I didn’t really know what was going on but it made me a little nervous – everyone looking at the night sky, UFOs, talk about Russians and nuclear weapons. It set the stage for an interest in what was to come.
I was a second-grader when Alan Shepard made the first US space flight – it was during school hours and everybody went down to the gym, sat on the floor and watched on this big boxy television set in black and white. Same with the third flight, which was the John Glenn orbital flight in early 1962. Then I remember the Apollo 8 circumlunar flight in December ’68 really well. It was Christmas Eve and they were reading from the Book of Genesis. It was so memorable. I remember lying on the floor in front of the TV set. Everybody in my family was paying a lot of attention to it. With Apollo 11, although I’m sure I saw the launch on 16 July, 1969, I don’t remember it very well – but I do remember the night of the landing, which was 20 July, 1969. My family and I all watched the moonwalk into late evening. Of course, there was no DVR or VCR back then. All you could do was take a photograph of the TV screen – so that’s what we did. We had a Polaroid. I must have taken about half a dozen pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface. I still have them in a shoebox somewhere, I should dig them out.
I think I did feel proud as an American. You have to think about the times. I was 17 years old, and the late 1960s were a turbulent time. My brother had been drafted into the military and the draft was ahead of me as well. I was against the Vietnam War. We had gone though such a terrible year in ’68 with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, and there was the civil rights movement and student protests. There was a lot of ambivalence about the Moon landing, feelings that maybe these resources would be better invested trying to solve other problems here on Earth. But Apollo 11 gave everyone a respite from those concerns. It was a time when you could set aside that ambivalence for a short period of time and enjoy the experience. You knew it was incredible, the human species stepping off its planet and going to another world for the first time. It was hard not to get caught up in that.
I bet a lot of Americans think they remember the planting of the flag, but they might be remembering the pictures. I know as a historian that the planting of the flag was much more problematic than people remember. It took over 10 minutes. They couldn’t get the staff in the ground because the surface was harder than they imagined it would be. Buzz and Neil had a terrible time. Buzz later said that he thought, “Boy, this is going to turn into a public relations disaster if we can’t get this flag to work.” Even when they were done, it leaned over a bit. After Apollo 11, like most Americans, I kind of lost interest.
Working with Armstrong on the book [Hansen wrote First Man, the official biography of Neil Armstrong, on which the Hollywood movie is based], the great thing was that I had so much time to talk with him before we even got to talking about Apollo. I ended up with 55 hours of taped interviews. Most people have had so little time, they jump straight in with the Moon landings. In some ways it was the last thing Neil wanted to talk about because it’s all anyone had ever asked him about. I was able to talk to him about his entire career and life before he even became an astronaut. Once I got to asking him about Apollo, I had laid out all my questions because I wanted the exact engineering details. So I think in the end I did recreate the mission, and Neil’s part in it, in meticulous detail.
In terms of how people feel now about the Moon landings, I think it’s fascinating because we haven’t done it for 50 years, and people wonder, ‘“Well, how the heck did we do it back then with the technologies that existed when now we have much more, much greater, technologies – but we haven’t gone back?” It took a very unique set of circumstances to come together to get the country to commit to a lunar landing back in the 1960s. In terms of how it’s viewed, a lot will depend on where we go from here. If we don’t go to the Moon or we don’t get to Mars within the next 500 years, Apollo will become even more amazing – an anomaly in history, similar to the way the Chinese, back in the 15th century, sent armadas of ships all the way to Africa and then just stopped doing it and didn’t do it again.
But I doubt that’s going to be the case. In a sense we’ve been living with a certain meta-narrative of the Apollo programme and it has controlled the storytelling, but I think there’s a lot there to be questioned or re-examined. What I like about the movie is that it’s telling the story in a new, unexpected way. If people want it to be a very upbeat, triumphant, American hero kind of story, well, it’s not that. It’s not meant to be.
Gerry McGovern, Design Director, Land Rover
I was in Ireland on the day of the Moon landing, in a place called Roscommon, visiting my mother’s side of the family. We used to go every year, and they didn’t have a TV. But I remember listening to it on the radio in the evening and being very excited – because that day we’d been playing in haystacks and so on, and there couldn’t be a more complete juxtaposition than playing in haystacks and landing on the Moon.
I was 13 at the time, and I didn’t really understand the science behind what had been achieved. But I think it reinforced the views I was developing – growing up in the 1960s around all this modernist architecture in Coventry, with the Cathedral, of course, and I remember the swimming baths – about the idea of futuring [envisaging the future].
I used to love watching Lost In Space, and back then, it felt like space was the future. We probably believed that in 50 years’ time we would all be living on the Moon. It started getting me interested in looking at a lot of parallels in design – like George Nelson using atoms on his famous wall-clock. Or the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, with those soaring tailfins, just like a rocket.
Looking at it now, the lunar module seems quite primitive, almost Heath Robinson. It doesn’t look technically stable, or at all like our science-fiction idea of what a spacecraft should look like. I love the work of Roger Dean, who used to do these fantastic illustrations of spaceships, which were pretty cool. And also Syd Mead [the industrial designer and futuristic artist, who worked on Blade Runner, Aliens and Star Trek: The Motion Picture], who did a lot of futuring – making beautiful illustrations of future worlds, future living, which ultimately inspired a whole generation of automotive designers… including me.
Heather Couper, Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, writer and broadcaster
At the time of the Moon landings, I was 20 and working at Top Shop in London. I’d been fascinated by astronomy as a child: my father worked as an airline pilot and I used to stay up at night and watch planes through my bedroom window over Heathrow at night.
One night when I was about eight, I saw what I thought was a green shooting star in the sky. I rushed into my parents’ bedroom to tell them and they just said, “That’s nice dear, but there’s no such thing.” The next morning the newspaper had a small item with the headline “Green Shooting Star” and I vowed that I was going to be an astronomer.
But as the years went by and I became a teenager, I got into music and clothes and decided to go into fashion. So I joined Top Shop as a management trainee. Gradually, though, my first love of astronomy was returning. I’d joined a local amateur astronomical society and would often go out after midnight to see shooting stars, then get up early for work the next morning.
At the time of the 1969 Moon landings I was living in a bungalow in Ruislip. I had a little black-and-white TV in my bedroom and I stayed up until 3am to watch it live. It was an extraordinary moment.
Not long after, I was promoted at work and I went to the library to get a business management book. I suddenly thought, “I’m just not that interested in any of this,” and walked over to the other side of the library to look at the astronomy books I’d loved as a child. I hadn’t read one for about eight years and I couldn’t believe how much had changed. There had been huge discoveries like quasars and pulsars. And whereas everyone involved in space had been old men with great grey beards, now there were sexy young men in jeans! I never looked back. Later that year I joined Cambridge Observatory as a research assistant, then went to Leicester University to study astrophysics, and on to Oxford University. I ended up lecturing at Greenwich Planetarium, then going freelance and I’ve spent my career writing and broadcasting on space and science.
Now, of course, the focus of exploration is more on Mars – I think we will definitely see a successful mission there within our lifetime, but it will be a very dangerous journey. Getting to the Moon is relatively easy – three days – but to get to Mars will take nine months. And there will be meteoroids and radiation to deal with. Would I go to the Moon? No! My colleague and co-author Nigel Henbest has signed up to be a Virgin astronaut and done his centrifuge training. Not me. I’m hopeless – I can’t even get on a rollercoaster.
Bridget Riley, artist
I didn’t have a television in 1969 so I didn’t watch the Moon landings. But I have been a Moon-watcher all my life. I’m fascinated by its waxings and wanings and by the unimaginable fact that it controls the rise and fall of tides. What I remember most vividly are the amazing colour stills taken on the way back and how beautiful our earth looked from the Moon, with its multicoloured band – the ozone layer.
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