The documentary ‘Apollo 11’ is magnificent, beautiful, and humbling.
It’s simplistic and linear in construction, because it didn’t need to be anything else. It presents the incredible feat of humanity’s first journey to another world as basic matter of fact, with no narration save that of audio recordings of the event itself.
One thing that stands out in the early part of the film is three simple numbers. 110, 99, and 88. Those were the heart rates of Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, respectively, during the launch of the Saturn V rocket that took them into orbit.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the science and technology of space travel, and of the technological achievements in particular of the Apollo program. All of the metal and glass and rubber and silicon and fuel and fabric in such complex arrangements to make up the vehicles and equipment to be used by three men on an 8-day mission is staggering. The Saturn V technical manual (which you can buy from Amazon and which I highly recommend) is a bewildering array of charts and graphs and procedures which reads like an arcane tome of lore.
But the real achievement of the Apollo program, and of all space programs before and since, was human.
88 bpm. Buzz Aldrin’s heart – as he was being launched out of the Earth’s atmosphere on an 8-day journey through a vacuum to be one of three people to be the furthest from Earth that anyone has ever gone – his heart was beating slower than mine as I sat in the cinema watching 50-year-old images of him doing it.
These astronauts (and cosmonauts) were so resolute, determined and disciplined, that they were able to put the success of their mission above any other instinct or drive. They did things no other human being had ever done, all in the name of scientific achievement.
Just as it’s easy to lose oneself in the technological grandeur of such projects, it’s also easy to discuss the petty politics that drove the Space Race of the mid-20th century. Many historians will point to the Cold War and the escalating arms race, and that the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and their Russian counterparts were merely an extension, an appendage, of the costly military contest to produce the biggest, most powerful and most accurate missiles.
Indeed, Kennedy’s famous “We Choose To Go To The Moon” speech directly references the implied threat of the successful completion of the NASA rocket programs:
“The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the the 40-yard lines.”
That segment of the speech was intended for foreign rivals more than domestic supporters, as are other segments which reference the sheer power of the machinery in development:
“We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where the F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile…”
And yet none of these politics are what drove the people, the individual human beings who filled NASA’s ranks, to such grand achievements.
In Gene Kranz’s memoirs ‘Failure Is Not An Option’ (another strong recommendation for any space enthusiasts) he talks of the desire to beat the Russians to each space milestone, and the disappointment of being beaten by the Russians in the early days, but this is borne out of professional pride. The scientists, mission controllers and astronauts of NASA cared less for the struggle of wills between capitalism and communism, but more for the prestige of coming first. At no point does Kranz mention concerns of nationalistic supremacy or of proving the destructive capabilities of the American nuclear arsenal – the American and Russian space workers were simply two teams competing for the same prize.
Below is Kranz’s speech to his mission controllers, three days after the death of the three astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, on the launch pad of Apollo 11 on 27 January 1967:
“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.
“We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, “Dammit, stop!”
“I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.
“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough and Competent.” Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.
“Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.
“When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
This is one of my favourite quotes of all time. “Tough and Competent.” Kranz walked into a room of mourning technicians and rather than making excuses, or offering platitudes, he told them all to sort their shit out and never let it happen again. And it never did. There were no more deaths on the Apollo program, and there were no more deaths in spaceflight until exactly nineteen years and a day later, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch on 28 January 1986.
These people, these astronauts and scientists and engineers, exhibited so many qualities that we find admirable in our peers. Intelligence, dedication, courage, inquisitiveness. But there are other qualities they exemplified too. The three astronauts at the top of every Saturn V launch put the entirety of their trust in the people who designed and built and programmed those rockets. They risked terrifying, painful deaths based on nothing more then their faith in the thousands of other people on the space program.
At the end of the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary, we hear the words of Neil Armstrong, as he honours those unsung heroes of the Apollo project during the crew’s final television broadcast:
“… The Saturn V rocket which put us in orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, every piece of which worked flawlessly … We have always had confidence that this equipment will work properly. All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of people … All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, “Thank you very much.””
As much as we would like to put these people on a pedestal, they were still human beings. Many of the astronauts were arrogant sons of bitches. Divorces were commonplace. Tensions frequently ran high between ambitious, high-achieving individuals of great intellect and passion.
But we must never forget that they put all of their flaws aside to achieve a mission which has never been repeated since. They were all human beings, but they were human beings with all of the worst aspects of humanity chiseled away. Their courage was matched only by their faith, and their determination matched only by their wits.
This is why I weep when I watch ‘The Martian’. It’s why I cry like a baby at the end of ‘Apollo 13’. Space exploration has always brought out the best of humanity and put it on show to all the world.
It’s why I get annoyed by the likes of ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Life’ and other stories with plots driven by the mental instabilities of their astronaut characters. Astronauts are chosen because they don’t crack, because they thrive on seemingly impossible challenges, and because they draw strength from terror and stress. It seems dishonest and a disservice to the 563 space travellers to date to portray such a class of people as somehow not being up to the task when they have repeatedly demonstrated their worthiness.
Space is antithetical to life. In all ways it is incompatible with human beings, and yet we have conquered it. And whilst it seems as though it was merely technology that got us there, I believe that without those human elements, those ineffable human qualities of courage, trust, and determination, we never would have made it out of the atmosphere.
I’ll finish this ramble with my actual favourite quote of all time, attributed to Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13’, although I can find no proof that he originally said it beyond the film itself:
“From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”