Apollo at 50

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

I have, of course, spent a good chunk of the week up to my knees in the Apollo anniversary programming. It’s been heady and weird, depressing and uplifting watching the old footage alongside some innovative and at times wildly eccentric new perspectives.

Let’s rip the bandaid off first. Fifty years ago people were concerned about the environment, a seemingly unwinnable war or two overseas and whether or not we really should be spending all this money on something that isn’t houses and jobs for poor people. It plays a lot like the issue of Sandman which introduces the immortal Hob Gadling; a story bookended by two pub conversations, centuries apart which are essentially about the same things.

But while there’s reassurance here there’s also entitlement and complacency. We can, and have waited for the future to come when we could have gone out and built it. But instead of a first step Apollo has come to be viewed as a destination and you can see the seeds of that here.The surly bonds of Earth have been stripped and now all we have to worry about is waiting for the next trans-lunar shuttle. Seeing BBC Panorama’s counsel of luminaries, including an impossibly young Brian Aldiss, discuss the philosophical impact of the landing was especially weird. The greatest minds of their time, which was fifty years ago, talking about a future which, for us, has yet to arrive.

So there’s that, the sense of a brave new world which a full lifetime and a bit for me later, is still brave, new and years away. But on the upside there’s the genuine sense of wonder and awe.. The German live coverage was fronted by a brilliantly enthusiastic broadcaster with a desk full of papers and a pair of guys in silver overalls simulating Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing. When the landing was confirmed, seeing Walter Cronkite, another name for God in the annals of broadcast journalism, visibly tear up was incredibly powerful. Even the BBC, terribly proper then as opposed to the ‘EPIC BANTS AND DYSTOPIA!’ It defaults to so often now, was oddly sweet to watch. Lots of serious people in bow ties discussing the implications of an event that had clearly shaken them to their core. 

These images still have incredible power, more so because of the manner they were presented. Channel 4’s coverage cheerfully refused to be tidy and we saw countless moments of humanity in among those vast beats of achievement and history. In the ‘Go/No Go’ rundown seconds before launch, you can hear Poppy Northcott. The only woman in Mission Control, forgotten for decades but inescapably present, indisputably there. A road that would lead to Sally RideMae JemisonChrista McAuliffeCady Coleman beginning with one simple incredibly powerful ‘Go.’ Poetry in rocketry, hiding in plain sight.

Danie Ware talks here about the magic of little things and that’s what so much of this brilliant coverage exposed. The polite lie that Mike Collins would be able to ‘swoop down and rescue’ Aldrin and Armstrong had they got in trouble is delivered with a straight face. Minutes later it’s followed by a terse conversation between Eagle and Ground Control wherein Aldrin explains a switch has snapped off and they think they can fix it.

A switch.

Snapped off.

In the truck cabin you’re sharing with your commanding officer, while both wearing deep sea diving suits, perched on top of a chicken wire and good intentions frame holding a bottle rocket under you. Which is on the MOON. They fixed it. I’d have thrown up, fixed it, maybe thrown up again and needed a nap.

This was HARD. This took brilliant people a decade to do at a level where it was PRETTY certain stuff would work out and even then the Eagle was 17 seconds from using all it’s fuel, off course and had to be looked for by Collins during overflights. Alone. 250,000 miles from home. Looking for the only two people he could share a ride home with. Who, by the way, joked with each other about whether the door was locked or not ON THE LADDER TO THE LUNAR SURFACE LIKE IT WAS NOT IN FACT A THING.

The Moon landings? VERY much a thing.

That combination of gloriously weird humanity (There’s a lovely Collins quoteabout how he had warm coffee and peace and quiet before they came back) and epic awe inspiring achievement powers the Channel 4 coverage but it isn’t the only new perspective this anniversary found. 

The BBC’s 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, directed by Anthony Phillipson not only includes a lot of these moments (One of which is my favorite conspiracy trail head, the Chinese folk tale the crew were told to keep an eye out for) but wraps them up in something I’ve genuinely never seen before. Patrick Kennedy, Jack Tarlton and Rufus Wright play Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong respectively and the words they say are exactly the words the astronauts used.

So are the voices.

The actors are fed real time recordings of in capsule conversations and re-enact them. There’s still emotional nuance and physical presence to the performances but it’s given a superstructure of established history that gives the whole thing, oddly enough, a unique voice.  It’s great work from the actors too whose emotional trajectory matches the astronauts’ as well as their speech patterns. Not an easy choice to make, but then even that’s thematically appropriate.

The Apollo program, all of it, was humanity at its best built on rockets based on designs by humanity at its worst. It’s an extraordinary story and one that rewards you the further in you dive. The shows I mentioned today will be available for at least the next 30-60 days I would guess. Here’s 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, the Channel 4 coverage and If you want more, I cannot recommend From The Earth To The Moon by HBO highly enough.