The Most Beautiful Icicle

Inigo Thomas

  • Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race by Roger D. Launius
    Yale, 256 pp, £20.00, July, ISBN 978 0 300 23046 8
  • The Moon: A History for the Future by Oliver Morton
    Economist Books, 334 pp, £20.00, May, ISBN 978 1 78816 254 8

In Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, taken with a camera strapped to his chest, Aldrin stands at ease, his right arm hanging loosely at his side, the left raised as if he’s about to do something – look at his watch, perhaps? The photograph was taken fifty years ago, on 20 July 1969, and it’s one of the most recognisable photographs from the Apollo missions, among the most famous photographs ever taken. So stark is the contrast between Aldrin in his white spacesuit and the empty grey desert he stands on – the black of space beyond, the sun out of sight – that while it is, obviously, a photograph of a man on the moon it is also a picture of the living and the dead.

For Armstrong, who always saw things from an engineer’s point of view, what was important was the suit: it was a spacecraft in its own right. Each suit had its own atmosphere; each was designed to fit its astronaut perfectly. ‘Turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecrafts in history,’ Armstrong said. ‘That was no doubt due to the fact it was so photogenic. Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.’ In front of Aldrin is his shadow, a set of footprints, and part of one of the lunar module’s four footpads wrapped in golden foil to protect it from the heat of the sun – the temperature on the moon can reach 125°C. A surface-sensing probe, once attached to a footpad but bent back on landing, lies on the ground. Behind Aldrin, the powdery surface of the moon resembles rippling water on a lake. ‘Magnificent desolation’ was Aldrin’s description for the moonscape: one word maybe too many. When the Apollo programme ended in 1972, cut short by Nixon because of its cost, the New York Times asked various people to reflect on what the moonshots had meant to them. One of them was Claude Lévi-Strauss. ‘I never look at TV except when there’s a moonshot,’ he said,

and then I am glued to my set, even though it’s boring, always the same and lasts a long time. Still, I can’t turn away. In this sad century, in this sad world where we live, with the pressure of population, rapidity of communications, the uniformity of culture, we are closed, like a prison. The Apollo shots open a little window. It is the one experience – vicarious, but we can follow it on TV – the one moment when the prison opens on something other than the world in which we are condemned to live. The moon is the inverse of Columbus’s new world – not an earthly paradise, but a desolate, dead, inhospitable place.

The action from the moon beamed back to Earth involved collecting rocks and samples of soil, setting up experiments, and skipping around like two boys playing on a beach. The only thing missing is a sandcastle. Despite appearances, the coverage was never quite live. Nasa imposed a minute’s delay on the transmission of footage: viewers would be protected in the event of a disaster. The pictures from space were no less captivating for that, and they’re no less captivating fifty years on. The two favourite words of Nasa astronauts in space were ‘beautiful’ and ‘fantastic’; a repeated phrase from Mission Control in Houston to the astronauts was ‘You’re looking good.’ Both of the big documentary films released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing, Apollo 11 and Channel 4’s Moon Landing Live, are beautiful and fantastic; they both look good. Moon Landing Live has the advantage of incorporating Walter Cronkite’s commentary, in which there was no unnecessary description – the talk is reminiscent of Richie Benaud commentating on other men in white.

While Nasa was plotting its expeditions to the moon, it hadn’t been sure whether cameras were necessary – wouldn’t they just add to the weight? When they were finally approved, some officials thought black and white would do. One of Nasa’s PR people had to intervene, pointing out that a black and white photograph of the first man on the moon was no good for the cover of Life. Sure enough, Life’s special issue on the moon landing, dated 11 August 1969, has a cropped version of Armstrong’s colour photograph of Aldrin in his spacesuit on the cover. Life had an exclusive agreement with Nasa for photography for access to the astronauts, as well as their families and the engineers. Now that the Life archive is freely available on Google Books, it’s easy to see how central coverage of the space programme was to the magazine in the 1960s, when it had a circulation of almost ten million. By the time the Apollo programme ended in 1972, public enthusiasm for space travel had fallen away. So had enthusiasm for Life: its circulation was half what it had been just three years earlier.

Nothing about the Apollo 11 mission went unrehearsed: even the photography was practised and programmed. ‘They would loan us a Hasselblad,’ said Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 mission, who stayed behind in the moon’s orbit in Columbia, the command module, while his companions descended to its surface. Mia Fineman, curator of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography (until 22 September), explains in the catalogue that the Hasselblad 70 mm became the camera of choice after the astronaut Walter Schirra – ‘Jolly Wally’ – bought one and took it with him on a Mercury mission to orbit the earth in 1962. The film which Eastman Kodak then made for Nasa was so thin that a roll could accommodate two hundred frames, rather than the usual 12. ‘They would loan us a Hasselblad and we would take it home weekends,’ Collins said. They would ‘take pictures of the kids, fly around in our airplanes, shoot pictures out of the window, and become familiar enough with it so it was second nature’. It was all about preparation – which didn’t mean everything went to plan, as the Nasa transcript of the Apollo 11 flight reveals. That transcript forms the basis of the BBC film Eight Days, in which actors restage a much shortened version of the mission, speaking the astronauts’ words, while conveying the claustrophobia inside the command module. At London’s Science Museum, the command module of Apollo 10 is permanently on show; its size – so impossibly small – is as striking as the capsule’s heat shield, designed to resist scorching on its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph.

‘Jesus Christ, look at that horizon!’ Collins said. He was looking at Earth as Apollo 11 made its way to the moon – the view of Earth from a spacecraft window is another famous Apollo photograph, taken by William Anders two missions before Armstrong’s. ‘It’s unreal,’ Collins said. And then:

I’ve lost a Hasselblad. Has anybody seen a Hasselblad floating by? It couldn’t have gone very far – big son of a gun like that … Well, that pisses me off. Hasselblad gone. Find that mother before she or I ends the … Everybody look for a floating Hasselblad. I see a pen floating loose down here, too. Is anybody missing a ballpoint pen?

Of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Collins was the one with charm. All of them went to Nasa’s finishing school, where they were told to wear knee-length socks, how to drink at parties and how to stand with their hands on their hips, thumbs forward and fingers back. Charm came to Collins effortlessly. ‘You cats take it easy on the lunar surface,’ he told Armstrong and Aldrin. ‘If I hear you huffing and puffing, I’m going to start bitching at you.’ When Nasa informed the astronauts that Pravda was covering the moonshot, and had referred to Armstrong as ‘tsar of the ship’, Collins said: ‘How’s the tsar over there? He’s so quiet.’ ‘Just hanging on,’ Armstrong replied, ‘and punching.’ It was Collins who best described the three men: they were ‘amiable strangers’, never close.

Aldrin was known as Dr Rendezvous for his habit at parties of droning on about the technical detail of the lunar module, named Eagle, for the Apollo 11 mission, and the way it would reunite with Collins and Columbia after leaving the moon. You feel a bit for Aldrin. Like Collins, he went to West Point – he was third in his class. Like Armstrong, he had been a noted pilot in the Korean War. He had an air of entitlement about him. But his mother, born Marion Moon, killed herself a year before he went into space and after the mission he began to suffer from depression. Today he appears in advertisements for Omega watches as an aged hipster in a bomber jacket and bracelets.

In Armstrong’s photograph Aldrin’s face is obscured by a large visor that protects him from the blinding sun. Reflected in it is the lunar module, the American flag, and Armstrong himself, in the act of taking the picture. There are almost no photographs of Armstrong on the moon for a simple reason: he was the one with the camera. ‘Anyone could be in that suit,’ the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones said of the picture of Aldrin. ‘It is a portrait of humanity evolving before our eyes into something new and extraordinary. It’s as if the moon’s surface has overwhelmed Aldrin’s face, or even become it.’ I’m not so sure: I see only Aldrin. That the photographer was Armstrong, and that he’s seen on the moon only in a reflection on Aldrin’s visor, was appropriate for someone who never made too much of himself. ‘A man without an ego,’ someone said of him. ‘They say no man is an island,’ Collins said. ‘Well, Neil is kind of an island.’

Norman Mailer had a hard time when it came to writing about the astronauts, and with the Apollo 11 mission generally. The three pieces he wrote for Life in the autumn of 1969 became a book, A Fire on the Moon – the Penguin edition has Armstrong’s photo of Aldrin on its cover. Mailer only got to see the astronauts at joint press conferences before the launch – no exclusive interviews for him. He said of the astronauts that they were a combination of unequalled banality and apocalyptic dignity, though he conceded that their journey was remarkable. He found the technology of the space programme overwhelming. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had come out a year earlier, featured a computer on a spacecraft that goes wrong and murders a crew of astronauts. Mailer’s inability really to understand Armstrong was in a way strange because, like Armstrong, he had studied engineering (at Harvard). Armstrong, Mailer wrote, spoke like ‘a salesman’. His humour was ‘tart’, his answers to the press a ‘characteristic mixture of modesty and technical arrogance, of apology and tight-lipped superiority’.

At least Mailer recognised Armstrong’s sense of precision, and his reticence. No one has said that Armstrong was garrulous, but in James Hansen’s biography, First Man, as well as in the film made of the book starring Ryan Gosling and in the recent documentary Armstrong, he comes across as a man of understated wit. Asked to describe what had been a near-death experience, Armstrong merely called it ‘a non-trivial situation’. ‘You know what you really are,’ a journalist said to him. ‘You’re a screaming nonconformist, and a loner.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Armstrong said. ‘It’s just that it’s nice to get out of the office once in a while.’ At the pre-launch press conference with Aldrin and Collins, a journalist asked Armstrong whether he would have anything ‘suitably historical and memorable to say when he performed the symbolic act of stepping on the moon’. Armstrong thought for a few seconds, rubbed his nose, looked back at the journalist, paused, and said: ‘No, I haven’t.’ When the audience began to laugh, Armstrong beamed back at them. He may have appeared remote, but that scene, which appears in Moon Launch Live, shows how easily he could establish a rapport.

‘Silence is a Neil Armstrong answer,’ his wife, Janet, once said. ‘The word “no” is an argument.’ Also: ‘I’m not married to “an astronaut” … I’m married to Neil Armstrong. I knew he wanted to go to the moon, somehow, some way, when I married him. Knowing this hasn’t changed my life.’ Grace Walker, who was married to another Nasa astronaut, Joe Walker, said of Armstrong that ‘he was very tight emotionally. But the whole attraction to those men, outside of their being good-looking and daring, was that they were laid back and had a sense of humour.’ Twenty years after the Apollo 11 mission, Janet and Neil separated. Neil became as inconsolable and indecisive in life as he had once been ambitious and single-minded. Letters and invitations went unopened. There was nothing his former wife felt she could do to help.

As a pilot Armstrong had those attributes Tom Wolfe made famous in his book about the air force test pilots who went on to become the Nasa astronauts. They had ‘the right stuff’: they would always do the most dangerous thing on offer. A day after a failed air force test launch of an Atlas rocket in California, Nasa successfully launched an adapted version of the same rocket in Florida – the US’s fifth manned mission to space. The sole astronaut onboard was Walter Schirra, who christened his capsule Sigma 7. Sigma, Wolfe explained, ‘stood for the summation, the solution of the problem’. No fears. What had happened to the other Atlas rocket the previous day was of no concern. Schirra ‘was about as cool and relaxed a human being who ever went to sit on top of a rocket shaft,’ Wolfe wrote. ‘I’m in chimp mode right now,’ Schirra said as he orbited Earth. He was taunting those test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in California who had passed over the opportunity of space flight on the grounds that it didn’t require enough skill to be interesting, or viewed astronauts as ‘spam in a can’, or thought space journeys were only for chimpanzees. ‘She’s flying beautifully,’ Schirra said. The main target of his teasing was, presumably, Chuck Yeager, who had been shot down over France during the war and in 1947 had been the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager broke other speed and altitude records, but he couldn’t become an astronaut because he hadn’t gone to college and wasn’t an engineer. Now 96, Yeager may outlive all the astronauts who went to the moon: staying alive was, and is, another aspect of the right stuff.

Armstrong rated Apollo 11’s chances of success as being no greater than 50-50. Before Apollo, his ‘non-trivial situations’ – those near-death experiences – numbered two, though they were so death-close that ‘near’ is inexact. The first was when the Gemini spacecraft he was commanding started spinning uncontrollably in Earth orbit in 1966; the second was when he was practising moon landings on a low-altitude aircraft known as ‘the flying bedstead’ – when the thrusters failed Armstrong fired the ejector seat with a second to spare and parachuted away. He turned up the same day at his Nasa office in Houston as if nothing had happened.

As part of Nasa’s oral history of the space programme, Armstrong spoke about the difference between training and experience:

Training certainly helps, but having been in flying machines for many years and faced a lot of difficulty, pilots become accustomed to being required to solve problems as they arise – and particularly test pilots, who get a higher percentage of things going wrong than normal pilots. And I’m not saying that we did it perfectly in every case; I’m sure we didn’t. But the experience that we’d had in flying a variety of different kind of machines in difficult circumstances certainly enhances your ability to look at a situation, analyse it and determine what your probable best course is and how much latitude you have to deviate from that best course. It’s not an easy subject to describe adequately, but it seems to have worked.

One way of characterising the programme was as a colossal problem-solving machine. The first problem was the one John Kennedy presented to Nasa in May 1961 when he said that there would be an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Was that even possible?

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As Roger Launius, a former official historian of Nasa, explains in Reaching for the Moon, Kennedy was initially unwilling to commit to the expense of space exploration; he changed his mind after Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco a week later. Kennedy sent a memo to Lyndon Johnson, his VP, asking whether there was any chance of ‘beating the Soviets … by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space programme which promises dramatic results in which we could win?’ Reporting back, Johnson told Kennedy that unless the US began work on a mission right away, ‘control over space and over man’s mind through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.’ In accounts of the space race, LBJ is the hawkish figure.

Eighteen months later, at Rice University outside Houston, soon to become home to Nasa’s Mission Control, Kennedy spoke to the nation: ‘We choose to go to the moon,’ he said and said it again and again. In one long sentence he outlined what would have to be done:

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun – almost as hot as it is here today – and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out – then we must be bold.

So there were now thousands of problems, large and small, that would take 400,000 people, 20,000 companies and billions of dollars to solve. During the production phase of the Apollo programme 50,000 design, manufacturing and human errors were identified. Armstrong the engineer explained how they were resolved:

Each of the components of our hardware was designed to certain reliability specifications, and by far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, substantially better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have.

I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman: ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.’ And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.

The Saturn V rocket, designed by Wernher von Braun, the German engineer responsible for the V2 rocket, never had launch troubles – amazingly, given what Oliver Morton in The Moon: A History for the Future describes as the ‘ludicrously powerful’ five F-1 engines at its base. At lift-off, the rocket weighed three thousand tonnes. ‘The shell of ice that had clung to the super cool metal,’ Morton writes, ‘fell in shattered sheets into the inferno below.’ Between them, the engines – still the most powerful ever built – generated almost sixty gigawatts of power, ‘equivalent to the typical output of all Britain’s electric power plants put together’; they burned through 15 tonnes of liquid fuel every second.

One problem was the Crawler, the enormous conveyor that carried the Saturn V from the Cape Kennedy assembly hall to the launchpad three miles away. It appears in the opening sequence of Apollo 11 and Moon Landing Live. The company that made it went bust, and Nasa had to figure out a way of rescuing it. Another problem was the A7L spacesuit, produced by the International Latex Corporation, maker of luggage, bras and girdles. The suit consisted of 21 layers. Next to the astronauts’ skin was a cooling layer constructed from water-filled piping. The outer layers were made of materials that both reflected the heat of the sun and could withstand the microscopic meteor activity on the moon that might puncture a suit. Once an astronaut had been measured, he was expected to stay exactly the same shape from his fitting until the moon mission he was assigned to, which might be many months later. Sixty-five body measurements were made and idiosyncrasies taken into account – Armstrong’s left arm was two inches longer than his right. Three suits were made for each astronaut – one for the real thing, another for practice, a third as a spare in case the first needed to be replaced. More A7L suits were made for back-up teams for each Apollo mission: overall, two hundred suits were made, each costing $200,000 – or about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

The seamstresses of the International Latex Corporation were extraordinary, as Nicholas de Monchaux explains in his 2011 book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. ‘The most valued seamstresses were those like Roberta Pilkenton, who could sew together the outer Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment’s 17 concentric layers, with hundreds of yards of seams, without a single tool except her own guiding fingers.’ The first suits submitted to Nasa, in 1967, were rejected – not because they didn’t work but because International Latex hadn’t supplied the technical documentation that explained exactly how each suit was made. For Nasa, one thing that definitely constituted a problem was ‘non-conformance’ with set procedures or standards. But if there was no plan for a suit, how could it conform? Nasa carried on rejecting the suits into 1968. Eventually an agreement was arrived at but, as de Monchaux explains, it was something of a fudge. The process of sewing the final suit ‘was so dependent on the individual craftsmanship of [International Latex’s] employees that attempts to enumerate precisely the procedures used were inherently impossible. As a seamstress later reflected, “No two people sew alike.”’ There were never any issues with the spacesuits themselves.

Robert Rauschenberg, who had a house in Florida, was invited to watch Apollo 11’s launch. He got to see the Saturn V the night before lift-off, its surface covered in ice because of the extreme cold of the liquid gases inside. ‘It turned out to be the most beautiful icicle,’ he wrote,

the incredibly bright lights, the moon coming up, seeing the rocket turn into pure ice, its stripes and USA markings disappearing – and all you could hear were frogs and alligators! That combination just seemed wonderful to me. The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time not concerned with war and destruction.

A few minutes before the scheduled launch time, a roll call took place. How did things look to each section of Mission Control, the launch manager asked: ‘Go’ or ‘No Go’? ‘Go,’ was the word from 16 desks. ‘Apollo 11, this is the Launch Operations Manager. The Launch Team wishes you good luck and God speed.’ ‘Thank you very much,’ Armstrong said. ‘We know this will be a good flight.’ The commentary of Jack King, Nasa’s public affairs officer, accompanied the countdown. ‘Three minutes and twenty-five seconds and counting, and we are still Go at this time.’

The rocket disappeared into the sky, and David Brinkley of CBS spoke about what he had seen. ‘There’s really nothing you can say about a sight like that,’ he said. ‘We all know what we saw but in another way we don’t know what we saw. You not only see it, hear it, feel it, inside and outside. A minute after that unbelievable event the astronauts are talking to the ground as a matter of fact as if they were taxi cab drivers reporting they are on Maple Street heading for downtown.’ Two and a half minutes into the flight, Apollo 11 was 70 miles downrange, 43 miles high, and travelling at 9300 feet per second. ‘You sure sound clear down there,’ Michael Collins said to Mission Control. ‘Sounds like you’re sitting in your living room.’ ‘Oh, thank you,’ was the reply. ‘You all are coming through beautifully, too.’

The day after Armstrong took his photograph of Aldrin, Nixon had a meeting with his advisers in the Oval Office – among them his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who noted what was said in his diaries. The president wanted to reimpose a ban on New York Times reporters entering the White House – the paper hadn’t given him enough praise for his role in the Apollo programme. ‘Need now to establish the mystique of the presidency,’ Haldeman reports Nixon as saying. ‘All led up to his idea of using “GO” as the theme, much impressed by astronauts last night. Means all systems ready, never be indecisive, get going, take risks, be exciting. Must use the great power of the office to do something. Boldness. Now is the time to Go.’ The president was evidently much taken by Apollo 11, but there was another thing he wanted to talk about at the meeting: ‘Also, wants to set up and activate “dirty tricks”,’ Haldeman wrote in his diary. Under the cover of the moon landing, which he had described as bringing about the ‘the greatest week in the history of the world’, Nixon set about the sequence of events that would lead to his undoing five years later.