Now that the world’s most notorious moonwalker is dead and buried (without his brain, London’s Mirror reported), attention shifts back to the original moonwalkers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (with Michael Collins circling overhead), just in time for the 40th anniversary of their historic stroll on the Sea of Tranquility.
Not since the walk up Calvary (which followed a reported stroll on the Sea of Galilee) has an ambulation attracted such attention, though the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 lunar walk benefited from a much larger support staff, budget, and audience – at least 600 million people watched Armstrong take his “giant leap for Mankind.”
Four decades on, the sheer magnitude of the mission is still stunning, inspiring a handful of books that also remind us how much the world has changed since the Eagle lunar module touched down at 3:20 p.m. CST that summer Sunday..
Craig Nelson’s “Rocket Men” (Viking, 404 pages, $27.95) is a broad and often entertaining account. Based on 23,000 pages of NASA oral histories, interviews and other documentation, it is also a fact-junkie’s dream, starting with its opening description of getting the Apollo-tipped Saturn V rocket from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch site.
The 129 million cubic foot building had doors 45 stories high and a 10,000-ton air conditioner without which, Mr. Nelson writes, clouds would form inside the building and create rain. The “crawler” that lugged the 363-foot rocket five miles to the pad (at 1 mile per hour) was the world’s largest land vehicle, weighing in at 6 million pounds, while Apollo-Saturn V weighed just under 6.5 million pounds, had 6 million parts, and represented the combined effort of 400,000 people and 12,000 corporations.
This ship had some serious mojo: At takeoff, its engines consumed 10,000 pounds of fuel per second and to break free of Earth’s gravity it hit 24,182 miles per hour, “over ten times faster than the bullet of a Winchester .270.” In the carbon footprint competition, Apollo was a true Sasquatch.
Mr. Nelson, who has written books on the Doolittle raid and Thomas Paine, provides plenty of historical perspective, noting that while President John F. Kennedy, who announced the mission to put a man on the moon May 25, 1961, may not have been a full-blown “space cadet” he worried deeply about falling behind the Soviet Union.
Lyndon Johnson, sounding a bit like an anchor on the Weather Channel, lit a fire under those fears. “Control of space means control of the world,” Johnson thundered. “From space the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause droughts and floods, to change the tides and raise the level of the sea, divert the Gulf stream and change the temperature climates to frigid.” (What is it about vice presidents and climate change?)
The project had other fathers, including Wernher von Braun, whose former boss, Adolf Hitler, employed him to use his technical savvy to incinerate Britons, as noted by Kennedy speechwriter Mort Sahl. During World War II, Sahl cracked, von Braun “aimed at the stars, but often hit London,” though he apparently changed his ways after coming to the U.S., joining the Church of the Nazarene after a religious conversion and even reciting the Lord’s Prayer at Apollo 11’s liftoff – before turning to a colleague and saying, “You give me ten billion dollars and ten years, and I’ll have a man on Mars.”
Mr. Nelson pens an often-gripping narrative of the roughly 240,000-mile (each way) flight, along the way answering several questions likely to pop up in landlubber minds. Claustrophobia? He quotes astronaut Frank Borman: “Here on Earth usually, when you’re trapped in something, what’s good is on the outside. In a spacecraft, what’s good is on the inside and what’s outside is death.”
Regarding the “facilities” issue, we’re reminded that incredible feats of science are often undertaken by men wearing diapers, at least part of the time, though in space even the most mundane matters take on a magical air. After explaining that discarded liquids freeze in a “a shower of glistening ice crystals” Mr. Nelson quotes an unnamed astronaut who said the most beautiful thing he saw during his space travels was a “urine dump at sunset.”
We also learn that no matter how far you travel from Earth you can’t escape the nags. Aldrin celebrated a brief Communion after touching down on the Moon, though he had to keep it secret so as not to further enflame Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who filed a lawsuit after astronauts on Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis. Then there’s the news media, which sometimes seemed dead-set on proving that journalism isn’t exactly rocket science.
While Armstrong wowed the world with his “one small step” comments, Walter Cronkite marked the event with, “Phew! Wow, boy! Man on the Moon!” and also asked an official why it took Armstrong so long to back down the ladder. Because, he was told, Armstrong “doesn’t have eyes in his rear end.”
Then there were countless questions about how the astronauts “felt,” — which, as Michael Collins explained, was a case of barking up the wrong tree: “It’s not within our ken to share emotions or utter extraneous information.” Armstrong made the same point after being asked what it felt like to walk on the moon: “Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying.”
Some astronauts do stretch a bit further, as noted in “Voices from the Moon” (Viking Studio, 200 pages, $29,05), though even the most extraneous keep their feet close to the ground, even while on the moon. Apollo 12’s Alan Bean recalls how he was astounded to look up from the lunar surface and see the Earth — “I’m really here,” he thought – before quickly scolding himself: “I’ve got to quit doing this…because when I’m doing this I’m not looking for rocks.”
What goes up must come down, and after their return Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, hit some very low points (Collins enjoyed relative tranquility, joining the State Department and later becoming first director of the National Air and Space Museum). While gazing at the moon may inspire romance, walking on it seems to have the opposite effect.
Armstrong moved to a dairy farm in Ohio, where he was a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. His wife left him, Mr. Collins writes, and he later had a heart attack.
Aldrin had double the marriage trouble, plus some, which he chronicles in “Magnificent Desolation” (Harmony Books, 326 pages, $27), a breezy read indicating that Aldrin has adapted quite well to our age’s penchant for self-revelation. .
“What does a man do for an encore after walking on the moon?” he asks early on, and for him the answer was: Crash. They didn’t call him Buzz for nothing back then: He had an ongoing wrestling match with alcohol and depression, sometimes rising from bed primarily to down a bottle of Scotch or Jack Daniel’s. He even went to work for a Cadillac dealership.
Yet Aldrin eventually broke free from booze’s orbit, giving it up in Oct. 1978 and later marrying the love of his life, a platinum blonde named Lois Driggs, on Valentine’s Day 1988. These days his passion is putting civilians into space, and the nation’s musicians will be heartened to learn that Aldrin prefers songwriters to journalists because, he believes, they have larger audiences.
In an introduction to another 40th anniversary commemorative book, “One Small Step (Murray Books, 162 pages), Aldrin leaves us with another insight into how much life has changed since Eagle landed.
After writing that a combined effort of the U.S. and EU countries may send the next astronauts to the Moon, Aldrin adds “there is no motivation for Russia because they would be 40 years late and they seem more interested in selling tickets to the Moon for $100m” — recalling the time, not so
long ago, when the Bear was officially a non-profit entity.
Mr. Shiflett is a writer in Virginia who posts his columns and original music at www.daveshiflett.com
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