Giant leap 

26 August 2012

Neil Armstrong

The death of Neil Armstrong is the most dramatic example to date of the steadily increasing losses of the towering historical and cultural figures who dominated the media in the youth of the baby boomer generation. These deaths bring a true end to the era they symbolised. Armstrong represented the pinnacle of the ‘can do’ modernity of the post war settlement.

Known mainly through television and magazines, the space race of the sixties was, for my generation, the defining human endeavour of all time. Although this technological struggle was later seen to have been underpinned by Cold War rivalries, in the sixties most people willingly bought in to the concept of pioneering adventure for its own sake and the pushing forward of boundaries ‘on behalf of all mankind’. This is a phrase which seems almost naive in retrospect, but amazingly did not seem sentimental or cloying at the time.

Contrary to current ideas, the Cold War was not the uppermost fear in Western minds. It was a given; we got on with life despite it, with levels of optimism and personal security ironically much higher than seems the case today.

The moon landing project was the quintessential sixties aspiration, with no guarantee of success and the ever-present threat of actual death for one or more of the participants.

Our thinking has now changed so much. There is the easy and cheap observation that the plaque left on the moon reading ‘we came in peace for all mankind’ is a hypocritical phrase when accompanied by American flags and a war in Vietnam. This is to misunderstand an era when most in the West saw the US as the flagship nation of all democracies and, in some ways, of all mankind. They were a nation still enjoying the momentum of deserved victory in the Second World War, a conflict that had restored forms of democracy to so many subjugated areas and former brutal dictatorships.

So it was that in this heady atmosphere of adventure, shared with a worldwide television audience of hundreds of millions – amazing at a time when television ownership was not universal – I was to be found with my family watching the first moon landing in the evening hours of that Sunday night in July 1969. Like almost all families that I knew, we had stayed the course all evening while the nail-biting approach and touchdown took place. After arrival there was an enforced delay before the first moonwalk itself, while astronauts rested and instruments were checked.

The Apollo 11 landing was the culmination of a series of manned flights around the moon, without landing, pushing the boundaries of the physically possible. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 had had particular success and public following, so people were not new to the concept of human spacecraft heading outwards.

Apollo 11 crew official portrait (NASA)

Young people in particular had followed the entire project from years earlier when the Mercury and Gemini flights had prepared the way, testing and defining the new science of space aeronautics in general. The July 1969 television transmission was thus not the single event often portrayed but the culmination of a series of increasingly extended reports from the NASA project.

It seemed remarkable at the time that the whole adventure had been planned with those at home in mind and with extensive arrangements to feed back a stream of real-time pictures. A more austere approach might have left the news photography to later-published stills, but this was the pinnacle of the new television age and, for political reasons as much as anything else, it was seen that to unite the human race by making this a very public spectacle would build the space programme into public consciousness in a very positive way.

My grandmother, well into her eighties by then, was the most determined of all the family to stay the course. Though of a very different generation to mine, born when Victoria ruled a third of the world, she recognised the enormity of the event she was witnessing that night. Of a modest educational background, grounded in the cotton mills of northern England, she knew ‘history in the making’ when she saw it. The delay between lunar landing and the first lunar walk was around six hours and less hardy souls would have peeled off to bed but we watched on. As it seems did almost everyone else.

Gran had been very much in two minds about the whole enterprise as the sixties went by. Her worry that mankind was tampering with a universe ‘better left alone as God intended’ were laid to rest by the sheer enthusiasm of her sixteen year old grandson. By the time of ‘the big one’ in July, she was almost as excited as me. As the evening wore on we grew visibly more excited; more so it seemed than the restrained approval of my father.

Armstrong on the moon's surface (NASA)

We drank a toast of tea for them and lemonade for me at four in the morning (BST) as Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon. Gran was not given to rhetorical statement but even she remarked that “folks will remember this moment for all history to come” – an unusually vivid selection of words from a taciturn mill girl from Lancashire. The grainy pictures and telephone-level sound from so far away – the world’s first real ‘outside broadcast’ – had conveyed the same sense of breaking new world barriers that Christopher Columbus must have experienced in 1492.

And now, Neil Armstrong, the man at the centre of this achievement has passed from our lives and even more firmly into the history books. A true compliment to his feat was the conversion of an elderly Northern woman from God-fearing space-sceptic to sudden admirer of the newly stretched potential for human endeavour.

There were tens of thousands of people involved in the race to put a man on the moon and indeed hundreds of thousands, if NASA subcontractors and scientific academics are included. The occasional tiresome suggestion that the whole thing was faked is nothing less than insane and those suggesting it, usually born long after the event, quite unable to grasp the sheer impossibility of tricking most of those intimately involved or expecting so many participants to keep their mouths shut for 50 years afterwards.

This lunatic thinking came largely from the supposedly harmless, exciting but fictional Hollywood movie ‘Capricorn One’. Sadly, a credulous, small but heroically ignorant and amazingly stupid minority have real trouble telling fact from fiction and continue to suggest that the whole moon landing was faked in a studio. I have never grasped how the odd smart supporter of this idea is happy to be in the company of such stunted thinking.

It always suggests to me that the conspiracy theorists knew little of the scope of the project or the sheer numbers of people involved. At the interface between ‘those in the know’ and ‘those outside the loop’ it would have been utterly impossible to have kept such a secret watertight for all this time. No one has ever come forward who was involved in the supposed fakery and it seems a grotesque and quite malicious subversion of human achievement to suggest that the facts were ever different from those we are familiar with. The greatest tribute we can give to Neil Armstrong would be to lay these preposterous suggestions to rest once and for all.

As a child of the sixties, I grew up with it as a given that technological progress, adventure and endeavour were supreme human qualities to be pursued at all costs. I hope that a future society, perhaps watching humans land on Mars, will find their modernity given as much of a dynamic jolt forward as my generation’s was by Neil Armstrong: ‘First Human’.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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5 responses to this article

P.Z. Temperton 26 August 2012 at 8:25 pm

Seems odd now, and you will no doubt be irritated with me, but I have little recollection of this. I don’t remember anybody I mixed with at the time sharing anything like your enthusiasm for or interest in it. I certainly don’t think I watched any of it live on TV. I was 20 at the time and no doubt preoccupied with more personal matters. Also I was rather left-wing and tended, then perhaps even more than I do now, to regard anything the US authorities did with suspicion and hostility, so I think I probably dismissed the whole thing as (a) a waste of money that should have been spent on improving the lot of the poor (I seem to remember this was also my parents’ view), and (b) merely an extension into space of the customary US arrogant colonialist foreign policy.

Kif Bowden-Smith 27 August 2012 at 1:21 am

Knowing you personally as I do, I think your views are not unexpected and I knew them anyway. What perhaps I left out of my account, partially intentionally, was the class undertones of support or otherwise for this project. I was a rather privileged child at a fee paying school, in the company of very articulate and ‘current affairs aware’ group of children and the school science department pushed an interest in space technology – still in its infancy within school curricula in 1969. I came from a typically bourgeois family, where these sorts of things were debated at breakfast tables and the idea that this was an American project was amazingly low in the step ladder of awareness. Of course we all knew that but there was a palpable feeling abroad that where actually stepping onto the surface of the moon was concerned they were there representing all of us. One had watched a lot of American tv and it seemed a benevolent society that we thought we knew well. They had pretty well paid for our victory in World War Two and probably had a psychological ‘free pass’ at that point for many Europeans. Unlike you I came from a Tory family (though I have not been a Tory for well over 45 years now) and patriotic achievement were not the dirty words that the then left construed them as. In the absence of any socialism from my parents, I doubt that the ‘plight of the poor’ really ever crossed our minds. I would also add, as I have told you many times over the years, that my generation of middle class boys read a lot of science fiction, so the whole thing also fitted into that template. But we have discussed this many times, and it is one of a set of cultural assumptions about the sixties that you have often dissented from. xx

Paul Z. Temperton 27 August 2012 at 7:22 am

Indeed. And yet, another curious thing is that I don’t remember any colleagues at the advertising agency where I then worked getting very excited about it or talking about it much, either, and they certainly weren’t radical or lefty people. Ditto my then boyfriend with whom I had recently started living. This, too, may be part of a phenomenon we have discussed before: “momentous world events” (as the media see them) impinging only rather peripherally on the lives of many ordinary people.

Kevin Chamberlain 30 August 2012 at 12:56 pm

Speaking as an occasional contributor to this site (there are a few pieces I’ve put my name to) the lunar landing is something which I remember, but which I also remember deliberately ignoring – for a different reason to those previously mentioned.

I was in my mid-teens in 1969, and I’d been aware of the Mercury and Gemini programmes before Apollo. I’d followed them in newspapers with average interest, but I don’t remember seeing them much on television. I guess the Apollo 11 mission – due to its nature and aims – was always going to receive a new level of coverage.

When pictures from Apollo 11 began to appear, I watched hoping to be amazed and impressed, but I was always frustrated and disappointed because I could never work out what I was actually seeing or what was happening. The pictures we saw showed objects of varying shades of grey, indeterminate size and shape, and moving around in a blurry, imprecise location. They could’ve been almost anything, almost anywhere. Maybe it was to disprove the conspiracy theorists, because if it had all been shot in a Hollywood studio, the pictures would’ve been clearer.

And then there were the communications between the crew and the control room – I could never understand what was being said. It was like a mixture of interference and white noise being spoken by semi-human voices. Daleks shouting with their heads in buckets. I couldn’t understand a word of it, and consequently I was amazed and impressed that those involved (crews and ground control) could communicate and make sense of it all.

So on the day/night when the big event happened, I deliberately stayed away and did something else (I honestly don’t remember what) because I knew watching television would drive me mad trying to decipher what NASA was presenting us with.

I guess television technology wasn’t quite up to what the TV companies were trying to show. Live pictures from space was in its infancy, and it was only because of that particular event that people were prepared to put up with such lo-res images. If your average evening of BBC/ITV telly had been like that, nobody would’ve watched anything.

Joseph 31 August 2012 at 9:50 pm

Here in the United States, ABC, CBS and NBC each carried about 60 hours of live coverage of Apollo 11 from the launch (16 July 1969) through splashdown (24 July).

The day of launch, all three began live coverage at 6 A.M. EDT (three and a half hours before liftoff), staying on the air until about 2 P.M. EDT, when the spacecraft had left Earth orbit and was on it’s way to the Moon.

About half of the total coverage was transmitted between 12 Noon EDT on 20 July, continuing through 6 P.M. EDT on 21 July. The 30 continuous hours included the entire time the lunar module Eagle was on the moon’s surface, even during the time that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were asleep!

Of the network presenters, Frank McGee of NBC and Jules Bergman of ABC were each on the air at their respective anchor desks for about 24 of the 30 hours of non-stop coverage, while Walter Cronkite of CBS was in the anchor chair for 27 of the 30 hours.

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