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


In all, Project Apollo lasted a total of 12 years, marshalling the industrial resources of a superpower in one of the biggest government enterprises mounted in peacetime. Apollo 11 represented only a fraction of the work that went into America's race to reach the Moon. Eagle was not the only lunar module NASA built, any more than Neil Armstrong was the only man able to fly it. While the crew were training for their mission, other astronauts were preparing for subsequent flights, and these preparations continued even after the race had been won by Neil and Buzz. In November 1969, Pete Conrad and the crew of Apollo 12 survived a lightning strike during lift-off, before landing with pinpoint accuracy beside Surveyor 3 in the Ocean of Storms. Conrad relished the chance to walk on the Moon and did so with an exuberance typical of his larger than life attitude.1

By the time Apollo 13 launched in April 1970, flying to the Moon was becoming old news and the TV networks struggled to provoke interest. Jim Lovell and Fred Haise (both of whom had been part of the Apollo 11 backup crew) planned to explore a highland region near the Fra Mauro crater but were lucky to make it home after an explosion crippled their service module. After Apollo 14 successfully landed in February 1971, NASA decided to press ahead with plans for more ambitious missions. The final three flights carried enough consumables for a three -day stay on the surface and were equipped with lunar rover 'moon buggies'. In April 1972, Charlie Duke got to see what the Moon was like for himself when he served as the lunar module pilot aboard Apollo 16.

NASA had planned to land on the surface a total of ten times. But on 20 July 1969, the relentless drive to send a man to the Moon lost much of its energy in the enthusiastic cheering and flag-waving echoing through Mission Control. After all the political posturing, the hard work and the faith, the dream had finally been realised. With the space race effectively over, new priorities demanded attention and cash, and within six months missions began to be cancelled.

When Michael Collins was recovering from surgery in 1968 he had been offered a job at headquarters, in the Apollo applications programme.2 This work focused on applying old Apollo hardware to new projects, and at the top of the list was a manned orbital space station. Unlike the lunar missions, the space station was dedicated to scientific research from its inception, a fact reflected in its name – Skylab. The Moon having been conquered, scientific research came to lead NASA's agenda, and since this was best done within easy reach of Earth, Skylab was confined to Earth orbit. Similarly, Skylab's successor, the International Space Station, operates at an altitude of 220 miles – little more than the distance between London and Paris. It is serviced by the space shuttle, which itself can fly no higher than 400 miles from the Earth. Since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon in 1972, no-one has travelled any further than a few hundred miles above the atmosphere.

In the years since Apollo came to an end, lunar samples have been studied in laboratories around the world. Neil and Buzz brought back 48lb of surface material, including 50 rocks of various sizes.3 After initial analysis in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, samples were distributed to international research teams, many of whom came to Houston in January 1970 for the first annual lunar science conference. Over four days, the conference heard that some of the rocks were basalts, formed from molten lava, but many were breccias – fragments of older rocks that had been fused together during the shock and heat of a meteoroid impact.4 Some of the smaller samples were entirely different to the larger rocks and were thought to have come from the lunar highlands. More than 20 minerals known on Earth were identified, along with three new ones unique to the Moon. The basalts appeared to be between three and four billion years old, while the dust included particles believed to have been formed 4.6 billion years ago. The search for evidence of living organisms that had begun in the LRL failed to find any positive results.

For years after Apollo 11, scientists argued over the origin of the Moon. Based on evidence gathered by all the lunar missions, over time most came to believe that it was formed from the Earth. It appears that a huge asteroid, the size of Mars, collided with the Earth in its earliest years, sending an enormous amount of material into space which coalesced into the Moon.5 The asteroid, meanwhile, slumped into the core of the Earth – where it remains. Today, the bulk of the material retrieved from the Moon is still stored in what was formerly the Manned Spacecraft Center and which in 1973 was renamed the Johnson Space Center. In total, Apollo astronauts gathered 842lb of rocks, more than a third of a ton of material. Collected from the pristine lunar surface, the rocks are protected in sterile conditions in order to preserve their purity.

Ironically, the Moon itself was not treated in the same way. In the quest for moon rocks, NASA left 118 tons of waste material on the lunar surface, including redundant Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter probes, spent third stages of Saturn rockets (that were deliberately targeted at the Moon), abandoned LM descent stages, lunar rovers and other equipment, and the crashed remains of LM ascent stages. Untouched by wind or rain, Tranquility Base remains today as it was in 1969. Scattered pieces of Kapton litter a site marked by the presence of man. The overboots worn by Neil and Buzz, the food trays they ate from, their TV camera and its cable, the flag and their footprints, and of course the complete descent stage, all lie undisturbed.

While little may have changed at Tranquility Base, those involved in the mission have long since moved on. After leaving his post as MSC director in 1972, Bob Gilruth served at NASA headquarters before retiring in 1973. He died in 2000, still largely unrecognised outside NASA for the enormously influential role he played throughout the first decade of America's space programme. His former MSC role went to Chris Kraft, the 'father of Mission Control'. Kraft stayed with NASA until 1982, when he took on consultancy work. Gene Kranz worked on the remaining Apollo flights and in 1974 was promoted to the post of Deputy Director of Mission Operations, becoming director in 1983. Working on space shuttle flights, Kranz stayed with NASA until his retirement in 1994. Steve Bales also stayed with the agency, becoming Deputy Director of Operations at Johnson until he left NASA in 1996 to go into business.

Two days after they were released from the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, Neil, Michael and Buzz gave a detailed press conference in Houston. The next day, they took part in ticker-tape parades in New York and Chicago, accompanied by their wives and children. That night they attended a banquet in Los Angeles, hosted by Nixon, where each of them was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour. The same award was also collectively given to the flight controllers, the medal received on their behalf by Steve Bales.6 In the following weeks there were further ceremonies and parades, in Houston and in the men's home towns. During a trip to Washington, on 15 September they returned the first-day cover commemorative envelope and stamp to the US Post Office, and the next day they delivered speeches to a joint session of Congress. There then followed the Giant Step Apollo 11 Tour. Visiting 26 countries in 38 days, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins gave more speeches, received a variety of accolades and were greeted by heads of state including the Emperor of Japan, Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran, General Franco, the Pope and Marshal Tito.

While Janet, Joan and Pat developed their genuine friendship, during this time the men themselves grew further apart. Removed from a uniting sense of purpose, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were confronted by an array of choices. As they began to consider their futures, they found they were looking in different directions and that gaps were beginning to open up between them. By the time they went their separate ways, their relationship was largely based on a shared past rather than ongoing mutual interests. Later, in looking back on his experiences with John Young during Gemini, and with Neil and Buzz during Apollo, Michael felt that the personality traits they had in common made it difficult to maintain an easy friendship. 'We are all four loners,' he wrote, 'and as a result I am not as close to any of them as the flight experiences we have shared might indicate.'7 Collins, for one, was content to accept that it was time to move on from NASA and find a new challenge. He felt that 'Being an astronaut was the most interesting job I ever expect to have, but I wanted to leave before I became stale in it.'8

Taking up a post at the State Department as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Collins retired from NASA in 1970. For a year he mixed in political circles but ultimately decided it wasn't for him and left to join the Smithsonian Institution. Collins became the director of the Air and Space Museum, overseeing the development of the monumental exhibition space that stands in Washington today. He stayed with the Smithsonian until 1980, and subsequently went into business. Today, retired and living in North Carolina and Florida, Michael fishes and paints, and continues to share life with Pat, to whom his 1974 bookCarrying the Fire is dedicated.

For Buzz, moving on from Apollo proved to be more difficult. In striving to succeed at West Point, the air force, MIT and ultimately NASA, he dedicated himself to a lifetime of achievement. In making the most of a succession of opportunities to prove himself, he had little time to look at life from a broader perspective. When the workload eased off, Buzz lost a sense of direction. Following the triumphant Gemini 12 mission, he was confined to bed for five days.9 During the aftermath of Apollo 11 he experienced a similar form of paralysis, this time lasting for years. 'Without a goal,' he later wrote, 'I was like an inert ping-pong ball being batted about by the whims and motivations of others.'10 Having found himself removed from active participation in the remaining Apollo flights, in 1971 Buzz left NASA to become the commandant of the air force's test pilot school at Edwards (although he had never previously attended it).11 He left the air force a year later. During this period Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression, and spent time in hospital in an attempt to regain a sense of control.12 He began to accept he may have inherited something of the state of mind that had led to his mother and grandfather taking their lives.13 Buzz eventually resolved many of the difficulties plaguing him, though not before he and Joan parted. Today he pursues an interest in developing techniques for further space exploration. He has remarried and lives in California.

Like Michael, Neil decided he too would not return to space. Throughout his time at NASA he considered himself first and foremost a test pilot involved in research and analysis. He was able to pursue these interests by taking up a post at headquarters, serving as Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics in the Office of Advanced Research and Technology. Subsequently choosing to enter academia, Armstrong completed a masters degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California (by submitting a thesis based on Apollo 11). Leaving NASA in 1971, he became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and was involved in teaching and research until going into business in 1979. In 1970, Neil took a lead role in investigating the explosion that struck Apollo 13, and in 1986 he carried out similar work following the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. Like many Apollo astronauts, Neil's time at NASA didn't leave him unscathed. He and Janet subsequently parted, and on more than one occasion the man who for 15 minutes had the Moon to himself has had to be rescued from an excited mob. Neil later remarried, and today he spends much of his time travelling throughout the States and abroad.

Both Armstrong and Aldrin have been the subject of much misunderstanding regarding the mission, some of which began before they even left the LRL. Searching for a portrait shot of Neil on the Moon, Lifemagazine mistakenly believed there were no pictures of him on the surface at all.14 While there was nothing to compare with the iconic full-frontal shot Armstrong took of Aldrin, there were at least five images showing Neil working in shadow beside the LM. Later he said, 'NASA kept putting out that there weren't any pictures of me. Because they believed that. But they didn't know [pictures did exist]. I don't think they probably ever asked Buzz or I.'15

In struggling to hold on to his privacy, Armstrong rarely publicly discusses the broader story of Apollo 11's journey. Inevitably, more than any other astronaut he has found himself the target of many rumours about what he apparently said, saw and did while on the Moon. Indeed, all three men have had to fend off questions about whether the mission in which they risked their lives even took place at all. Bold claims are made by people who have not always read everything, or anything, available to them, and their suggestions frequently fly in the face of reason. As Charlie Duke asked in the 2006 film In the Shadow of the Moon, if NASA hoaxed the landing, why did they fake it six times? In 1969, Russia tracked Apollo 11 to the Moon and back, as did astronomers at the UK's Jodrell Bank Observatory. Yet some suggest that thousands of US government politicians and officials, past and present, have together preserved the secret truth for 40 years, and that during the height of the Cold War they managed to persuade the Kremlin to join in. Those who believe NASA made it all up should perhaps visit the McDonald Observatory in Texas where laser beams are fired towards the lunar surface. Observers can watch the evidence of photons returning to Earth, which is only possible because Buzz left a reflector on the Moon. Even so, people continue to accuse him of 'faking the landing'. When filmmaker Bart Sibrel confronted Aldrin, in 2002, calling him 'a thief, liar and coward', Buzz (who was 72 at the time) punched him in the face.16

The truth is that during the Apollo programme NASA achieved far more than it expected to. In putting men on the Moon, the agency sent people 240,000 miles into space. This in itself enabled astronauts to take pictures of Earth from a distance that for the first time demonstrated just how fragile our planet really is. The famous Earthrise photograph, captured by Apollo 8, looks across the arid plains of the Moon towards Earth in the distance, and shows that the planet is a lonely drop of colour surrounded by endless depths of nothingness. Pictures such as this inspired the burgeoning green movement, which today has never been more active.

Another consequence of Apollo is perhaps even more significant. In 1969, the Cold War was inflamed by conflict in Vietnam and elsewhere, but in space it was a radically different story. When NASA asked Moscow for information on Luna 15, details of the probe's trajectory were sent promptly and without question. Luna 15 itself crashed in the Sea of Crisis a day after Eagle reached the surface, but it served a purpose in demonstrating that the two superpowers could work together in space. The relationship was greatly extended in 1975 when an Apollo command module successfully docked with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Paving the way towards later co-operation aboard the Mir Space Station, this political breakthrough was a triumphant moment for America and Russia – and also personally for Deke Slayton. Selected as an astronaut in 1959, then grounded three years later due to a heart condition, Deke was told he would never fly in space. But after medical treatment, in 1972 he was restored to full flight status. In looking for a crew for what was known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, he selected himself as the docking pilot. Deke retired from NASA in 1982 and went into business. He passed away in 1993.

But perhaps the most significant achievement of Apollo is that in accomplishing its goal, it redefined humanity by proving we are capable of leaving our home planet. This will permanently be a defining characteristic of our capabilities – which is why, 40 years on, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin remain household names. In landing their gold and silver spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, Neil and Buzz proved something new about us. As they loped about in the dust years of work by thousands of people culminated in a mission flown by three men, who between them possessed the 'bright stuff' necessary to pull off what many said couldn't be done. The mission was to be repeated by others, but it was Neil, Michael and Buzz who led the way.