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The dark side of the moon

The 1969 moon landing has inspired countless films, books and TV shows – but on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the mission’s cultural legacy is shadowed with a darker hue.

It is 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin are about to take their fragile little craft, Eagle, down to the surface of the moon – leaving Michael Collins, the pilot of the larger command module, Columbia, in orbit above them. “You guys take care,” is Collins’s farewell, as Aldrin and Armstrong set off on the final leg of humankind’s most epic journey. Armstrong’s reply is even more casual. “See you later,” he says. And then down they go, until – a little over 109 hours after launch – Armstrong stepped out on to the dusty grey surface and into the history books.

The words he spoke then – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – are far better known than his throwaway goodbye to Collins. But it’s that “see you later” that sends chills down my spine. Armstrong, born on 5 August 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, was a famously cool customer, and his legend is littered with accounts of his extreme sangfroid, from his years as a naval aviator and later, as test pilot. A little more than a year before Apollo 11 was launched, he was forced to eject from a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle – known as the “flying bedstead” – seconds before it spun out of control and exploded. Most notably, as he brought the Eagle down towards the moon’s surface, he took manual control of the craft to avoid rocky terrain and landed with only seconds of fuel to spare. This is the epitome of what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff”: an almost preternatural calm in the face of pressures most of us on the ground can hardly imagine.

And yet we do imagine. When it comes to the Apollo programme that led to the moon landings – astronaut Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon’s surface as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972 – we re-imagine, revisit, re-examine endlessly. And never more so than now, approaching the 50th anniversary of that first small step. So if you’re anything like me – the kind of person who, if she’s feeling a little down in the mouth, will google “Saturn V launch” to watch the wonder of that great machine (18 metres taller than the Statue of Liberty and powered by seven and a half million pounds of thrust at launch) thundering into the atmosphere – you’ll be thrilled by the cornucopia of commemorative content loosed upon the world this summer. Film, television, books and podcasts: you could while away many months retracing the eight days it took for Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to get to the moon and back.

Despite the celebrations, however, there does seem to be a greater urge to critically interrogate this remarkable project than before. It was William Anders, on the pioneering Apollo 8 mission at the end of 1968, who took the photograph now known as “Earthrise”: a miraculous glimpse of the beauty and fragility of our home, the only place in the universe we know of – so far – that supports life. The men and women who have ventured into space and seen the Earth from far above have often remarked on the transformation worked upon them by what is sometimes called “the overview effect”: the visceral realisation that we’re all in this together. Former Nasa astronaut Leland Melvin noted the 50th anniversary of that famous image last year and wondered about the fate of the planet, asking: “What are the course corrections we need to do now that will help us get to the hundredth anniversary?”

So, as time passes, the technological optimism of the Apollo programme seems shadowed with a darker hue. Reflexive celebration seems a thing of a past: Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 may have been an account of a failed mission, but it remains a celebration of true American grit. Andrew Chaikin’s wonderful 1994 book, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, is certainly no triumphal tome, acknowledging as it does the personal costs paid by some of the astronauts – and yet it is largely optimistic.

But beginning with last year’s First Man, Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong, a darkness becomes visible. Based on James R Hansen’s authorised biography of the astronaut, who died in 2012, the film is moody and intense, its closeness to the subject’s experience making it almost a first-person narrative. There is very little flag-waving patriotism; indeed, before the film was released, there was outcry – in some quarters – over the fact that the actual planting of the flag on the surface of the moon does not appear on screen. Compared to Chazelle’s previous outings, Whiplash and La La Land, First Man was a disappointment at the box office and the Oscars.

But that sense of doubt beneath the wonder of achievement does not surprise Kevin Fong, an author and medical doctor who has worked with Nasa’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Fong is the presenter of the BBC World Service podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, one of the real highlights of this summer’s offerings. The conceit of the podcast is to break down the mission into 13 episodes, one for each minute it took Eagle to get away from Columbia, 60 miles above the lunar surface, and down to its risky and momentous landing. Along the way, Fong, working with veteran producer Andrew Luck-Baker, somehow takes in what feels like the whole history of the space programme – and gets to talk to almost all of its surviving iconic figures, including Michael Collins, now coming up for 90 and sounding just as sprightly as he did aboard Columbia.

13 Minutes starts in darkness,” Fong says, “with the story of Wernher von Braun.” Von Braun was a German rocket scientist and engineer who developed the V-2 rocket for the Nazis; at the end of the Second World War he surrendered to the US army and became a leading light of the American space programme. “We remember it all now with misty eyes, but there’s no mistaking it; the start is not about romance. The space programme starts with some of the darkest moments of the 20th century. The best thing that you can say about Von Braun is that he is an ambiguous character. It didn’t start with Kennedy’s speech. That’s a very rousing and beautiful speech, but really the space programme is the surrogate battlefield of nuclear war, using many of the people who prosecuted the last war – and some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. But in that decade-long journey there is this genuine voyage from darkness to light.”

“We choose to go to the moon,” President John F Kennedy had said in 1962 in that stirring speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But even Fong – a die-hard space buff – didn’t realise quite how hard until he worked on 13 Minutes to the Moon. What you hear in the series, he says, “is the bleeding edge of everything that science and technology has to offer – and is barely just capable of doing the job. And you realise just how precarious the whole thing is.” It’s riveting, edge-of-the-seat stuff, and makes the perfect companion to CNN Films’s remarkable documentary, Apollo 11, which I watched two nights running at the BFI’s IMax theatre; I’d happily have gone back several more nights in a row.

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, the hour-and-a-half-long film was primarily created from newly discovered 70mm footage of the mission (the stuff you find when you dig around in your closets, eh?) and more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings. With a heart-pounding score composed by Matt Morton, the film is as near as you’re ever going to get to watching the Apollo 11 mission live. If there’s a disadvantage to the style, it’s that there’s barely any framing or analysis: if you don’t know that the 1202 alarm that flashed on Eagle’s computer shortly before landing nearly caused the mission to abort, this film won’t tell you. You’ll have to listen to 13 Minutes for that – or watch 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, the somewhat peculiar hybrid drama-documentary that aired on BBC Two on 10 July.

Written by Philip Ralph and directed by Anthony Philipson, 8 Days blends archive footage with reconstruction to odd effect. Actors play Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins – but the audio we hear is real, taken from the mission itself. So the viewer is, in effect, “in” the spacecraft with the astronauts, but hears the crackly voices that Houston heard across the void of space. I was not convinced by the technique. More my style is the never-before-seen footage in David Fairhead’s Armstrong, a biographical documentary narrated by Harrison Ford that features the Armstrong family’s home movies. From the moment Neil Armstrong returned to Earth he became the most celebrated man on its surface; but he always eschewed the public eye. Does this film, any more than Hansen’s biography or Chazelle’s Hollywood treatment, make him more knowable? That is perhaps a moot point: asFirst Man”, Armstrong will always seem more than simply mortal.

We chose to go to the moon. Or at least, some did: watching Apollo 11, it is impossible not to observe that nearly every face you see is white and male – despite a striking early shot of 28-year-old JoAnn Morgan, an instrumentation controller who was the only woman present in Nasa’s firing room at lift-off. In First Man, screenwriter Josh Singer included Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” (lyrics include “I can’t pay no doctor bill/but Whitey’s on the moon”) in a powerful montage of a country wracked, in 1969 – as it still is – by poverty and racial discrimination. Kevin Fong offers a counter-balance: he grew up in Britain in the 1970s, the son of first-generation immigrants; his parents had never been to university. “Gil Scott-Heron would have thought me and my parents were who he was telling his story for. But what I took from Apollo in the 1970s was the idea that if you are capable of firing
people off the surface of the Earth and to the moon, than anything – anything – must be possible.”

And if anything must be possible, perhaps we may still be inspired – as I still passionately am – by the story of Apollo 11. Perhaps we may still save ourselves.

“It is possible that the divine spark in man will consume him in flames,” said the CBS news commentator Eric Sevareid in 1969 as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins travelled to their destination, a quarter of a million miles from our only home. “That the big brain will prove our ultimate flaw, like the dinosaur’s big body; that the metal plaque Armstrong and Aldrin expect to place on the moon will become man’s epitaph.” A gloomy thought. Sevareid, however, had more to say. “But the future has never revealed itself. It is made step by step, moment by moment. The next great moment is now at hand.”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer