The history of manned spaceflight is defined by inconceivable scale and fragility. Hundreds of thousands of miles, hundreds of thousands of pounds of thrust, millions of hours spent designing, testing, flying, all for a small group of desperately human, utterly fragile people who would travel higher and further than anyone ever had before. A unique combination of desire and courage, design and persistence. The knight class of society put in flight suits and fired out of the atmosphere on top of the largest rockets ever developed and nowhere is this combination more evident, more compelling, than in the Apollo program.
Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ mini-series, From The Earth to the Moon attempts to place this unscalable, inconceivably huge project in historical and personal context. The thirteen episodes explore the project in its entirety, from the initial announcement through the frantic scrabble to be ready, the loss of the Apollo 1 mission and, crucially, past Apollo 11 and the first man on the moon. This is not just a series about Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, it’s a series about what happened to place them at the tip of history and what it was like to be the people who followed them.
Sitting at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it’s tempting to buy into the conspiracy theories that the moon landings never took place. As I write, the space shuttle program is about to be shut down, its replacement is several years away and whilst NASA have, again, announced a plan to return to the moon, there’s little chance of it happening in the immediate future. There are interesting developments, to be sure, and I’ll be looking at the Hundred Year SpaceShip program soon, but the moon is so far away, so distant, the Apollo project such a distant memory that it’s passing into modern myth. Tikur Bekmambetov, director of the Nightwatch movies, is currently producing Apollo 18, a found-footage horror movie about the ‘real’ last manned mission to the moon with the tagline:
THERE’S A REASON WE NEVER WENT BACK.
But why did we go in the first place? That’s what this first episode sets out to explore and does so in a clever, even elegant way. The project is inconcevably vast, inconceivably ambitious and instead of trying to look at it from a particular viewpoint, this first episode embraces that scale, embraces that moment of abject shock as the project is announced and asks the titular question;
Can we do this?
That question falls squarely on the shoulders of James Webb, played by Dan Lauria. As Russia gets the first man into space, and then the first space walk, it’s Webb who is put under continual pressure to try and get the Americans ahead of the game and that pressure, that need, is written all over Lauria’s perpetually hangdog face. The Americans were systematically out manouvered for much of the history of early spaceflight and the episode neatly contrasts the flight of Yuri Gagarin and the first space walk, conducted by Alexi Leonov, with scenes of worried men in suits trying to work out where they went wrong. The Russians are in flight, the Americans, it seems, are still trying to work out how to get off the ground.
That process begins with the Mercury and Gemini projects and culminates in Kennedy’s famous announcement, which is also part of the series’ opening credits. It’s a beautifully played moment as we see Webb and his colleagues react to the speech. There’s a long pause and then Webb asks who wants his job. His colleagues laugh and after a moment’s conversation, Webb again asks who wants his job and this time, no one laughs. Ten years to get an American on the moon. Ten years to get from pressurised cannisters lobbed over the horizon and back again to a world wide net work of communications and sensors and technology, designed from scratch, that could transport three people to the moon and back again. Needless to say, no one volunteers to take his job, and slowly, the impossible is rendered down to the merely all but impossible. Goals are defined, engineering contracts are developed, design work begins and the next step is defined; Gemini. Two men where Mercury was one, a chance to get more astronauts in orbit, more experience and begin achieving the seemingly endless list of objectives needed for a moon shot.
All of which begins in a hotel in Houston, where a man called Max Peck checks in over and over and over again. It’s a moment of quiet, slightly desperate comedy, as the new astronauts all check in under the same code name but the scene also carries a resonance that echoes through the rest of the project and the series. These men are all unique and all the same, each part of the mission but none more important than the others. Max Peck will walk on the moon and each of them is Max Peck.
But not all Max Pecks are created equal, something which becomes clear as the new astronauts make their way out into the country to help raise the profile and funds of the project. At one particular fund raiser, astronaut Elliot See is greeted with polite enthusiasm by some and barely contained derision by others, because unlike several of his colleagues, he hasn’t flown yet. An astronaut isn’t an astronaut unless he’s been above the atmosphere, unless he’s pitted his fragile humanity against inconceivable scale, inconceivable distance. This idea, that the astronaut corps are defined by their work rather than their personality, is something that continues to haunt the American space program and is explored throughout the series, most notably in episode two, Apollo 1, and episode 3 We Have Cleared The Tower.
Matched with this need to build a reputation is the brutally simple fact that everything about the project is dangerous. The very real human costs of the project form the focus of Apollo 1 but they’re foreshadowed here, through See and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. See never flew, killed in a plane crash, whilst Ed White’s space walk was one of the defining moments of American space travel and is presented here as the moment the program really gained momentum. One of the final scenes of the episode is White, sitting astride his Gemini capsule as it orbits the Earth, pointing, just for a moment, at the moon. It’s a beautiful, complex image, evoking Doctor Strangelove as much as the heroic ideal of the Astronaut, the pressure-suited knight riding a steed built by hundreds of people towards glory. Arrogance and persistence, hard work and vision, cinema and history combine in a moment which is iconic, complicated and tragic.
It’s revealing that the episode doesn’t finish with this but rather with a group of astronauts being informed that they will be the staff for the Apollo project, that one of them will walk on the moon. Once again, there’s the idea of scale vs individuality, of one historical moment that any of them could carry. This scene answers the question at the top of the episode, definitively and with absolute confidence; we can do this, we will do this and one of these men will be the one to do it. Max Peck is going to the moon, but as episode two shows, the price of getting there is far higher than anyone in the project realises.