Moonshot: The Inside Story of Mankind's Greatest Adventure - Dan Parry (2009)


On 10 July 1969, Frank Borman returned from an official goodwill trip to Russia. Three days later he was still briefing senior politicians in Washington when Chris Kraft urged him to find out what he could about the Luna 15 mission. Borman consulted the National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, before using the infamous White House hotline to call the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The following day, telegrams detailing the probe's trajectory and promising that radio interference would not be a problem were sent to the White House and to Borman's home in Houston.1 In a rare moment of co-operation, the two superpowers were brought a hair's width closer through a spirit of unity fostered by the leaders of their respective space programmes. In space at least, if not elsewhere, the Cold War was showing signs of a thaw.

An atmosphere of mutual respect between astronauts and cosmonauts developed in rare meetings at international air shows. In May 1967, Michael Collins was asked by NASA to attend the Paris Air Show, along with Dave Scott. Besieged by photographers, autograph hunters, security men and tourists, they sat down with cosmonauts Pavel Belyaev and Konstantin Feoktistov. But the formalities evaporated when everyone retreated to the privacy of the Russians' airliner and opened the vodka. The Russians insisted they had no plans for a manned landing on the Moon but admitted that cosmonauts were training to fly helicopters, leading Collins to suspect that secretly their lunar ambitions were far from over.

Compared to NASA's open way of doing things, Collins considered the Russian space programme to be 'hidden from view, secret and mysterious'.2 This was a widely held opinion. The Russians never announced flights in advance and disasters were always concealed. News of the loss of cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko, during a training accident in 1961, did not emerge until the 1980s.3 Worse, many in NASA believed the Russian space programme to be tinged with a nasty communist way of doing things, including ordering cosmonauts to undertake risky ventures simply to beat the Americans in achieving key objectives. The Russians might have put the first man in space, and the first woman, and carried out the first EVA, but some in NASA wondered just how much risk they were accepting along the way. There were indeed occasions when cosmonauts were sent on missions against their better judgement. Unknown to NASA, Vladimir Komarov had raised concerns about the many technical problems with Soyuz 1, before it claimed his life in April 1967.4 Yet the fact that the Russians were sometimes getting ahead of themselves, and consequently taking unnecessary risks, did not prove that NASA occupied the moral high ground. It was the Americans who had publicly set a deadline, forcing developments to move forward so quickly that while the Russians lost one man during a mission NASA lost three on the ground. A month after Komarov died, Collins, Scott, Belyaev and Feoktistov drank to an end to accidents.

By 1968, the CIA was warning NASA's leadership of a giant rocket being secretly built by the Russians.5 It appeared that Moscow was preparing to send men to the Moon, in an attempt to beat the Americans once again and steal the ultimate prize laid down by Kennedy. In fact Kennedy, as we have seen, had invited Khrushchev to take part in a joint expedition to the lunar surface. Although the Russians were receptive to the president's UN speech, they were never to find out what he had in mind.6 After Kennedy's assassination Khrushchev was persuaded to go it alone, and he secretly set in motion the necessary preparations – as Collins had suspected. A top priority was a powerful rocket to rival the Saturn V, and by February 1969 the Russians were ready to test their N-1 booster. Although big enough to impress the CIA, the N-1 lacked the Saturn's reliability and exploded just over a minute into its flight. On 3 July, just two weeks before the launch of Apollo 11, a second N-1 blew up, the huge explosion destroying its launch-pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and bringing an end to any realistic hope of a Russian manned mission to the Moon. No announcement was made of the disaster and the world did not learn of it for some months to come.7

In the struggle for ideological supremacy, America made much of its self-appointed role as the guardian of freedom and democracy. In this spirit, NASA claimed that unlike the menacing Russians it was freely allowing the world to see every triumph and tragedy. In 1957, Vanguard TV3 was set to become America's first satellite. But when it got no further than four feet from the ground, TV networks were allowed to continue their live footage of the unfolding disaster. Similarly, in January 1967, news of the Apollo 1 fire was quickly passed to the press. This policy of making the agency publicly available was to have far-reaching consequences for many of its personnel and their families. Unlike their Russian counterparts, who largely remained anonymous, America's astronauts were living in a country where Hollywood and rock 'n' roll created new heroes every week. Alongside movie stars and music legends, spacemen were offered up to an admiring public by reporters who described them as dashing adventurers. Astronauts were the real-life embodiment of the space-travelling supermen of science fiction, the type of guys who would readily throw you a smile and a salute on their way to ridding exciting new worlds of bug-eyed monsters. The public didn't care about orbital mechanics and P52 platform alignments, they wanted to know what astronauts had for breakfast. Some liked the attention. Others, among them Neil Armstrong, enjoyed press adulation as much as engine failure and considered this aspect of the job a necessary evil.

There was a feeling within NASA that, as a government agency spending billions of public dollars, the public were owed something in return. This led to astronauts being despatched to dinners and local functions across the country. Before his Gemini mission, Michael Collins was sent to a Boy Scouts event in Ohio. He always found such PR work difficult, but on that occasion his dismay was outweighed by the Boy Scouts' own disappointment after they discovered he had not yet flown in space. 'Aren't any of the real astronauts coming?' one of them wanted to know.8 Once in training for a flight, the men were spared such duties.

Initially, the Mercury Seven found it hard to cope with the flood of requests for interviews, but help came in the form of a controversial contract tying the men exclusively to Life magazine. In return for an annual sum, divided equally among the astronauts, the men gave their stories to Life in an arrangement that allowed them to tell other reporters they were unable to give anything to anyone else. As servicemen, none was highly paid and they found it hard to resist the offer of extra cash. In 1969, Aldrin was still technically in the air force (as was Collins), and he received a modest serviceman's salary of $18,600; Collins received $17,000. The Life deal gave him an extra $16,000 per year for his first two years with NASA, although when the number of astronauts later swelled the pot was stretched more thinly.

Armstrong, a civilian employed by NASA since 1955, was earning $30,000 a year, putting him among the highest-paid astronauts.9 Neil believed that reporters, whether from Life or elsewhere, frequently misunderstood the truth. Many wanted to know what thoughts were going through his mind at launch and what it was like to ride a rocket. They wanted answers soaked in emotion, that ideally expressed a philosophical message about voyages to the heavens. Armstrong knew they wanted more than abort modes and guidance programs but felt they were missing the point. No-one was writing poems at lift-off. Even the normally sanguine Collins was frustrated by the myopic press whom he believed had a 'morbid, unhealthy, persistent, prodding, probing pre-occupation with the frills, when the silly bastards didn't even understand how the machines operated'.10

It wasn't just the astronauts who were signed to Life: the deal also included the personal stories of the men's families. Before a mission, quietly concerned children were asked what they thought about Daddy dying in the depths of space. For an astronaut's wife, life was difficult enough without such questions from the press. Janet Armstrong, Pat Collins and Joan Aldrin had each moved hundreds of miles from relatives and friends to join their husbands in Clear Lake, a distant suburb of Houston. The sprawling Manned Spacecraft Center that dominated their lives was 28 miles from the city centre. With the men spending so much time at work, many astronauts' wives found themselves effectively running one-parent families. Frank Borman later said, 'I was a part-time father ... my input was well-meant and sincere, but it was also too sporadic for me to take much credit for how well they turned out.'11 Few wives had the time or opportunity to pursue a career of their own, marital difficulties were common, depression was a problem, and more than one of the wives turned to alcohol. 'Of course they were treated like royalty,' Tom Stafford's former wife Faye said of the men, 'it was hard for them to come home. What could ever compete with that? I was lucky if I could come second.'12 Most of the women had experienced service life, and knew that military families traditionally developed strong networks in support of each other. A similar thing emerged in Houston, with friends and neighbours rallying round to help those involved in a mission. Janet had never been a service wife and chose not to actively participate in wives' clubs.13 For Joan, the most difficult elements of life during a flight included the daily press conferences she was expected to give. Prior to Gemini 12, Life had reserved key stories about the Aldrin home, yet every day she had to find something new for the rest of the press.14

This was all the harder since NASA expected wives to play their part without getting in the way. In practice this meant that they were not welcome at launches, nor were they given any official advice or information before the mission. When Neil experienced problems aboard Gemini 8, NASA switched off the squawk box in Janet's home. Desperate for information she went to Mission Control but was refused entry.15 Joan Aldrin once told Buzz 'no-one tells me anything'. For her, the wives' role was clearly defined: 'Our job is to keep house, take care of children, and not ask questions.'16 Some felt particularly vulnerable since NASA controlled the world in which they lived yet their exclusive link to the agency was through their husband. After Charlie Bassett's jet crashed into the building containing the Gemini 9 spacecraft, his widow Jeannie felt isolated to the point that she could no longer live in Houston. She remained friends with Joan Aldrin, but Joan told Buzz that 'it was as though she wasn't a part of us any more'.17When Buzz confirmed he was going to the Moon, Joan later wrote in her diary, 'I wish [he] were a truck driver, a carpenter, a scientist – anything but what he is. I want him to do what he wants, but I don't want him to.'18 A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, Pat Collins gave Michael a poem she'd written, which referred to 'nighttime stabs of fear' and 'tears, unbidden, welling'.19 While their husbands were risking their lives in the name of their country, the wives had to maintain a public façade of excitement and awe, as did their children. Officially, as they were once reminded by George Mueller, the head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, they were proud, thrilled and happy; anything else they might be feeling was best hidden from view.20

Nothing was allowed to pierce the wholesome public image of the average astronaut, who occupied a place in the public's consciousness somewhere between a Boy Scout and Buck Rogers. It was an image preserved in print by Life, which fostered an impression of clean-cut, contented all-American families. Under the surface, however, the all-too human truth was understood by Life writers like Dora Jane Hamblin. Hamblin knew better than most that in space the astronauts were heroes but on the ground they were still men. While life in Houston was based around the family, there was a greater degree of freedom at the Cape. 'There were plenty of pretty women imagining love with a space hero,' Gene Cernan said, and some of the men ensured they didn't have to imagine for very long.21 If an astronaut wanted to take his wife and children to the Cape, permission had to be obtained from Deke.22 Hamblin and other reporters saw what was going on but knew that neither the men nor NASA would allow them to say anything. Nothing untoward could be printed without breaching the astronauts' trust, which Life had invested so much in acquiring.23 After spending time with a group of off-duty astronauts, journalist Robert Sherrod saw that in print they 'came out as usual, deodorized, plasticized, and homogenized, without anybody quite intending it that way'.24

No mission had ever attracted as much attention from the press as Apollo 11. As the launch date approached, the flight became bigger than NASA. Interest at home and abroad inevitably focused on the men who were going to the Moon, eclipsing the tremendous efforts of people like Bob Gilruth, Chris Kraft and George Low who had been involved in the mission for years. 'We were our nation's envoys,' wrote Collins. 'We would be watched by the world, including the unfriendly parts of it, and we must not fail.'25 As attention from the press grew more intense, in June Michael was able to escape from life under Houston's magnifying glass by retreating to the Cape, taking Pat and the children with him for the first couple of weeks. What he found particularly difficult was the popular misconception that the mission was already all but done. It seemed the press were encouraging a feeling that the flight would pass without a hitch. Astronauts had already travelled as far as lunar orbit and nothing had gone wrong; next time it would be a simple case of going the extra distance.

The fact that Apollo 11 was a test-flight, which might or might not succeed, seemed to be largely misunderstood. From the word go, Deke and the crew had been working on the basis that the mission had the best shot at completing the first landing, but nothing was certain. Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were simply first in the queue. Neil himself believed that while they had a 90 per cent chance of making it home, the probability of actually reaching the surface was no more than 50 per cent.26 As well as overestimating the mission's chance of success, the press also misunderstood the flight's main objective, which was the landing itself. To many, the idea of a gentle landing didn't hold the same level of wonder as walking on the Moon. Bringing flying machines to a stop was something man did on a daily basis. But to walk on another planet was the stuff of dreams, and speculation about what the astronauts might find was rife. While many scientists interested in Apollo 11 were working on phenomena such as radiation, most focused on the geology of the Moon. They saw in the mission a unique opportunity to study a snapshot of the solar system's history, undisturbed by weather or life. In agreeing to place a range of experiments on the Moon, NASA allied itself to the wider scientific community and thereby raised the flight beyond a simple level of oneupmanship with the Russians. But the science was an afterthought. Approval for an experiments package didn't come until 1964, three years after Kennedy's speech, which had been a vision presented by a politician and was more about politics than geology.

Ambitious plans for extensive scientific work could be left to the later Apollo missions. During the first manned flight to the surface, time would be limited and priority would be given to gathering samples of rocks and dust. This meant only a small number of experiments would be carried by Apollo 11. An astronaut's ability to work with tools and scientific equipment was investigated in an area of volcanic rock near Cinder Lake, Arizona. Geologists wearing pressure-suits explored a simulated lunar landscape that had been blasted out of the rock, replicating a Lunar Orbiter picture. The results of these and other tests influenced the design of the experiments that were being considered for the flight. A list of potential experiments was prepared in May 1965, and a month later Houston set up a department to develop those that were to be selected. By 1966 a preliminary timeline for the moonwalk had been put together, suggesting that once the astronauts had collected an initial sample of stones they should deploy the experiments before using tools to gather a broader selection of material.27

Two years later, in October 1968, NASA headquarters approved the development of a solar-powered seismometer that would measure meteoroid impacts and 'moonquakes'. To prevent it freezing during the two-week lunar night, the device was equipped with a heater system that incorporated 2.4 ounces of plutonium 238. This represented the first major use of nuclear energy in a manned mission. As well as the seismometer, NASA also commissioned an unpowered laser reflector which would help to improve tracking of the position of the Moon. Together, the two items were known as the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP). On Earth, the instruments – each the size of a suitcase – weighed a total of 170lb, but in the one-sixth gravity of the Moon it would be easier to carry them from the spacecraft to a suitable point on the surface. As well as the EASEP, the astronauts would be a given a solar wind composition experiment (abbreviated to SWC). This would capture evidence of electrically charged particles emitted by the Sun.28 In addition to filling two 'sample return containers' and setting up the experiments, Neil and Buzz would also have to put a TV camera into position and erect the US flag. After photographing their work, the surface and the LM, they would have to prepare the containers and the film magazines for flight before returning to the spacecraft. All of this had to be completed within two hours and 40 minutes, with each task given a specific slot in a detailed timeline.29

Preparations for the extra-vehicular activity took up less than 14 per cent of the entire training period, and mostly took place at the Manned Spacecraft Center.30 Fully suited, Neil and Buzz would clamber down from a makeshift LM and set up their various pieces of equipment on an extensive sand tray. Sections of the EVA were also occasionally practised elsewhere, including the pool at Houston's Neutral Buoyancy Facility and the KC-135 'vomit comet', both offering the ability to work in reduced gravity. Lunar gravity was also replicated at Grumman's plant in New York, using a cable and pulley system which Armstrong referred to as the 'Peter Pan rig'. By supporting five-sixths of his weight, the facility gave him the sense of being able to jump very high. 'You also had a feeling that things were happening slowly, which indeed they were,' Armstrong noted. Through such tests, it was established that once they'd readjusted their sense of balance the crew would be able to walk about in search of stones.31

Armstrong and Aldrin liked the geology lessons that astronauts had been taking part in since 1964, and both acquired extensive knowledge of the subject.32 Collins, however, was not a fan, telling Dora Jane Hamblin, 'I hate geology. Maybe that's why they won't let me get out on the Moon.'33 A final geology field trip was made in February 1969, when Neil and Buzz visited west Texas, accompanied by the press. On 18 June, the day after the flight readiness review approved the launch date, senior NASA managers watched them complete a full run-through of their work on the surface. Amid concerns about what could be expected of them during their search for lunar material, it was agreed that the astronauts would not venture further than around 100 feet from the spacecraft. Armstrong later said, 'If the descent and the final approach to landing were rated a nine on a ten-point scale of difficulty, I would put the surface work down at a two.'34

As well as using the simulators at the Cape, and taking part in EVA training in Houston, the crew also spent time at Grumman on Long Island, and at North American Rockwell in Downey, California. They attended computer briefings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and studied stars at the Morehead Planetarium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and at the Griffith Planetarium in Los Angeles. In order to travel quickly between these and other places the astronauts were provided with supersonic T-38 jets, the air force's most modern training aircraft. To Collins, the T-38 was one of the joys of the job, particularly when given the chance to talk about it: 'Sure, I left Houston after work, refuelled at El Paso, and landed in LA before sunset. Would have been here sooner except I had to shut down one engine just past Phoenix.'35 It was not always an easy aircraft to fly. As well as Charlie Bassett and Elliot See, astronauts Ted Freeman and C. C. Williams were also killed in T-38 crashes.

Time also had to be found for non-essential parts of the mission. Collins wrote that during a discussion on ideas for the mission patch, Jim Lovell suggested an eagle. Flicking through a book at home, Collins found a picture of a bald eagle, legs down, coming in for a landing. He traced the image on to tissue paper and added a lunar surface and the words 'Apollo' round the top and 'eleven' round the bottom. Armstrong felt 'eleven' might not be understood abroad, so 'Apollo 11' was added to the top. Collins wanted to introduce an element of peace to the patch but wasn't sure how. A simulator instructor suggested he include an olive branch, which Collins then added to the eagle's beak before submitting the design for approval. NASA headquarters felt that the eagle's claws looked too aggressive, as if the bird were about to seize the Moon for itself. After he moved the olive branch from the beak to the talons, Collins sent the patch back to Washington and this time it was approved. The crew decided not to include their names so that the emblem would be representative of everyone who had worked on the mission. Once the patch was complete, it was a short jump from there to naming the lunar module Eagle – the symbol of America serving as an appropriate partner to Columbia, which at one stage had almost become the country's name.36

In between the training sessions, the crew also needed to assemble their personal preference kits (PPKs). Each consisted of a pouch made of fireproof cloth that was not much bigger than this book. Subject to weight and space restrictions, the men were largely free to take what they wanted, as long as they gave a list of everything to Deke. NASA kept the contents of PPKs confidential, and a degree of mystery still surrounds the kits, including even their number. It appears three were tucked away in a compartment in the command module (weighing up to five pounds each) and another two were in the lunar module (neither heavier than half a pound). A sixth PPK (probably consisting of several small packages, together weighing more than 50lb) was known as the Official Flight Kit, while a seventh was easily accessible and contained frequently used items such as pens, torches and other small objects. The secrecy surrounding the kits stems from the fact that most contained the men's private property, along with mementos passed to them by friends and relatives. A measure of discretion was also required since not everything given to Neil and Buzz would actually go to the surface. Nor would anything given to Mike – unless taken down to the Moon on his behalf. Prior to the mission the men agreed that all personal items taken into space would simply be described as 'carried to the Moon', regardless of which spacecraft the object was actually on.37

The three men personally spent $2,700 on 450 silver medallions bearing the Apollo 11 eagle, to be shared between them. They also took with them a commemorative Apollo 11 envelope issued by the US Postal Service, complete with commemorative stamp. Additional Apollo 11 envelopes, signed by the crew, were also carried into space, alongside six-inch flags of the US and other countries. Aboard the LM was an Apollo 1 mission patch, along with two medals honouring Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin (who had been killed in an air crash in 1968) that were brought back from Russia by Frank Borman. Secured within the command module were two full-size US flags that had flown above Congress before the flight and which were due to be returned to Washington.38 The men also carried a number of mission patches, three gold olive-branch pins for their wives and other items of jewellery. Buzz took to the Moon a small vial filled with wine and a miniature chalice, photos of his children and a gold bracelet that had belonged to his mother. Mike carried his college ring, together with a gold locket for his daughter Ann, and a gold cross that had been in the family for many years and which was to be given to his daughter Kate. He also carried many small items at the request of other people, including prayers, poems, coins, tie-pins, cufflinks and a hollow bean containing no less than 50 tiny ivory elephants.39 By special arrangement, Neil took aboard the LM a small section of muslin and a piece of wood from the left propeller of Flyer, the Wright Brothers' first successful aircraft. 'Did he take something of Karen with him?' Armstrong's sister June later wondered. 'Oh, I dearly hope so,' she added.40

Throughout April, May and June, assembling the PPKs, designing the patch, learning to use the stills, TV and 16mm cameras, and other minor duties had to be squeezed into the relentless training regime. For Neil and Buzz, the hardest time came in early June when difficulties with the simulator were slowing their progress and, according to Janet, sapping morale. Janet recalled that 'Neil used to come home with his face drawn white, and I was worried about him'.41 But while the wives may have seen the impact the mission was having on the men, according to Collins the crew never discussed among themselves the difficulties facing them. He himself felt subject to an imaginary commandment proclaiming 'thou shalt not screw up', but he had no idea whether Neil and Buzz felt the same way since they rarely talked about anything beyond technical details. 'Amiable strangers,' he later famously called the three of them.42 To outsiders, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin seemed unconnected. Guenter Wendt, the technician in charge of the launch-pad, noticed that they always arrived for launch training sessions in separate cars.43 But beneath the surface, having worked together so closely for so long they were able to read each other's thoughts. By July, Michael believed that they had come to know each other 'by osmosis or some other mysterious transfer process, rather than by direct communication'.44

As they got closer to lift-off, the pressure continued to build. When the Apollo 9 crew reached the same point in their preparations, they were physically run down and suffered chest infections that postponed their launch by three days. Apollo 11 could not afford a similar delay since suitable lighting conditions on the Moon would not return for a month. To limit the risk of infection, the men went into quarantine at the Cape, emerging on Saturday 5 July for a press conference in Houston. Extraordinary measures were taken to protect them from any germs carried by the press. Walking into the room, the crew wore gas masks which they removed only once they'd taken their seats within a large three-sided plastic box. Beside them, fans blew air out into the auditorium.45 Each of them spoke before taking questions. One reporter asked Armstrong whether he believed the Moon would eventually become part of the civilised world; another wanted to know if he feared losing his private life after the mission. To a question about what he would be taking to the Moon, Neil wryly replied, 'If I had a choice, I would take more fuel.' After sitting through an array of arid answers, Norman Mailer wrote that Armstrong 'surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth'.

While the reporters vainly searched for drops of emotion as if looking for water on the Moon, a few hundred yards away Gene Kranz and his team were beginning their final training session. The crew later gave many individual interviews before going home at the end of a 14-hour day – unaware of 1201 alarms that could be safely ignored.46

After flying back to the Cape on Monday 7 July, the men returned to the simulators, once again living a life of relative isolation. During one flight to Florida, Michael shared a T-38 with Deke Slayton, who mentioned that he had been looking at future missions. As the command module pilot on such a prominent trip, Collins could expect to lead a future flight, giving him a chance to walk on the Moon. Michael told Deke that if Apollo 11 aborted he would be looking to fly again but if all went well this would be his last space-flight. He had come to believe that 'I simply was putting too much of myself into Apollo 11 to consider doing it all over again at a later date; besides, the strain on my wife was not good and should end as soon as possible.'47

The mission consumed so much time and energy over so many months that in some respects the astronauts knew more about what was happening on the Moon than on Earth. 'When you're part of the pioneering effort,' Buzz later said, 'there's a focusing of an individual's concentration and level of attention that is at the exclusion of a lot of other things. It's a kind of gunbarrel vision.'48 They largely remained aloof from developments dominating the news at home and abroad, events that, like their own mission, promised to occupy a place in modern American history. For in 1969 America was a divided country, and there was hope that the flight would restore some of the national pride that had corroded over the previous 18 months.

In January 1968, the Viet Cong's series of successful counterattacks demonstrated that America was not going to be able to extricate itself from Vietnam any time soon. At home, smouldering resentment over the war was ignited by revelations of a massacre of up to 500 civilians by US soldiers in the village of My Lai. Anti-war protesters were involved in fighting on university campuses and elsewhere across America. For five days in August 1968, demonstrators in Chicago clashed with police in the streets surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin believed they were going to the Moon in the name of America, but for millions of black Americans, many of whom had until recently been confronted by widespread segregation, NASA was almost exclusively white, spectacularly rich, and might as well have been on the Moon already. During the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos presented a Black Power salute by raising their gloved fists in the air. They, at least, did not share the notion of a unified America such as might have been felt in Houston. The $24 billion invested in Apollo was said to be benefiting the economy since not a cent of it was spent in space, but critics couldn't help wondering how much of it was being spent in the poorer corners of the nation. The cash largely went to other rich white organisations such as North American Rockwell and Grumman. NASA was picketed, and there were reports of bomb threats. For much of America, the deluge of fire surrounding the launch of Apollo 6 was overshadowed by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on the same day. In Houston, Buzz joined a march in memory of the civil rights leader, accompanied by his church minister, the Reverend Dean Woodruff.

In the midst of the turmoil, for many people a rocket launch, or 'shot' in US terms, was an exhilarating distraction, and of course nothing would represent sparkling success – American success – more than NASA's Moon shot. It was the stuff of fantasy, always a safe refuge when times are bad. It would be a decisive blow against communist Russia, it would remind the rest of the world that America was a force to be reckoned with, and as such it simply had to succeed. It was all down to the 'Moonmen', as the crew were described in the press.49 The extent of the pressure the men were under was clear to NASA administrator Dr Thomas Paine, who joined them for dinner on Thursday 10 July, just days before the launch. Emphasising that they were not to take undue risks, he told them that if they were unsuccessful they could try again on the next flight. His promise was unrealistic, but it served its purpose in encouraging the men to avoid unnecessary dangers.50

That weekend – as thousands of people began partying on the Florida coast, and Chris Kraft and other managers quietly fretted over Luna 15 – a sense that things were finally about to get under way descended on Houston and the Cape. On Monday 14 July, a flight readiness review confirmed the launch would go ahead in two days' time, and at 5pm the extended countdown began.51 A rising tide of tension threatened to engulf the men at the centre of all the activity. Neil, Michael and Buzz calmly tried to shut out the world's expectations and focus on the task in hand. Janet believed that Neil finally felt ready to attempt the landing. Previously, she had told the press there was no point in worrying about the outcome of the mission because 'It doesn't do any good. They're up there on their own. There isn't anything we can do to help.'52