Apollo 11: The Inside Story

David Whitehouse

Icon Books, £12.99

THE moon. In Gaelic, Lochran aigh nam bochd: the lamp of the poor. This “plate of grey steel spattered by a million bullets” came to light up our entire planet on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. The lunar landing enriched humankind. It had been a long time in the making, as David Whitehouse, the astronomer and former BBC science editor, explains in his fascinating book published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the event.

He persuaded his father to let him stay up to watch the landing as it happened in the middle of the night, an experience he says he has never got over. I remain something of a neophyte in the world of science and I suppose it didn’t occur to me to ask to stay up but I do remember watching the landing with a sense of wonder and awe at school the next day as Armstrong stepped from the Eagle, the Apollo 11 lunar module and uttered those 11 words that have echoed down the decades: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong later explained: “It, you know, was a pretty simple statement, talking about stepping off something. Why, it wasn’t a very complex thing. It was what it was. I didn’t want to be dumb but it was contrived in a way, and I was guilty of that.” That statement helps explain why Armstrong was chosen ahead of Buzz Aldrin to be the first moonwalker. It encapsulates his lack of ego. He was quiet, calm and had the essential quality in an astronaut of certitude. Aldrin badly wanted to be the first man on the Moon and wasn’t slow to let anyone know. Nasa went with the right man with the right stuff.

A bigger rivalry played out in the race to the Moon. Whitehouse’s story isn’t just Apollo 11’s. It is the entire Apollo programme’s, told against the febrile backdrop of the Cold War and the drive to develop rocketry for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction. But Whitehouse also pays tribute to the Soviet Union’s scientists, engineers and cosmonauts who did so much to advance the space age, albeit at a much greater loss of life. Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space when his Vostok 1 capsule completed an orbit of the Earth in 1961. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. Aleksei Leonov was the first human being to walk in space, Irina Solovyeva the first woman to do so.

But, as Whitehouse points out, “for the Russians, the space race had degenerated into little more than a circus act of one-upmanship. Ultimately it cost them the Moon”. That did not stop them battling to the bitter end, sending the Luna 15 mission to the Moon two hours before the planned lift-off of Apollo 11 to take soil samples from the lunar surface and return them to Earth. The spacecraft hit the side of a lunar mountain but, even if it returned with a piece of the Moon, it would have arrived home two hours and four minutes after the Apollo 11 splashdown.

It is not as if the Americans had made safety their absolute watchword. The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, the first crewed mission in the programme to send men to the Moon, were killed in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal at Cape Kennedy in 1967, victims of what became known as “go” fever: the relentless drive to achieve the goal set by President John F Kennedy in 1961 of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safety to earth before that decade was out. The Americans learned their lesson. Gene Krantz, Flight Director in Mission Control, declared: “From now on, we are forever accountable for what we do and what we fail to do.”

1968 was a dark year for the United States. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, cities burned, rioting stained the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese people were killed by US troops in the My Lai massacre. Yet, for many, the year was rescued by the stunning success of the Apollo 8 mission, which saw Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders become the first human beings to leave the gravitational field of Earth and venture towards the moon on a 320,000km mission to test the lunar command and landing modules.

After a series of successful tests, Apollo 8 disappeared as planned behind the Moon, the first time in history humankind had been occulted. The world waited on tenterhooks for 34 minutes to find out if they would come back in lunar orbit from the other side. They did and, after 10 orbits, fired the engine to take them home. So the year ended brightly. As a friend later told Borman: “You have bailed out 1968.”

Michael Collins, commander of the Apollo 11 command craft that watched over Armstrong and Aldrin, believes that history will judge Apollo 8 to be more noteworthy than Apollo 11 as it is more significant to leave than to arrive. Few who greeted the Moon landing the following year with coruscating wonder would probably agree. I recall watching uncomprehendingly yet transfixed as the tiny Eagle inched its way to the bleak lunar surface, our blue and white planet shining in the blackness over the Moon’s horizon.

Whitehouse has mined his interviews with many of the moonwalkers to tell their stories in their words and Armstrong’s qualities spring to mind looking again at the photographs he took on the Moon, of Aldrin, the first man on the Moon not stealing the limelight but content with his small image reflected in Aldrin’s visor.

Whitehouse picks up on the theme of leaving in concluding remarks that also convey a sense of loss. He laments that no-one has returned to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972: “Now when I look at the Moon through my telescope I have a very different feeling from that which I experienced before man set foot upon it. The footprints I have witnessed being made will last for tens of millions of years, perhaps longer, until bombardment by micrometeorites will churn them into the lunar dust.”

It is isolated once more, he writes. But humankind will surely return. Donald Trump tweets about returning to the Moon then going to Mars in 2024, which would coincide with a second term (the heavens forfend). China has launched missions to the Moon to explore the prospect of lunar mining for helium-3 as an energy source (more rocket and trajectory than belt and road), as have Russia, India and Israel. Cost is always the factor naysayers cite against Moon landings. With so many countries and agencies focusing on the moon and its potential as a base for onward exploration, collaboration across countries must be the answer to meeting the bill and, perhaps, finally, delivering on the promise President Richard Nixon made to Armstrong and Aldrin as they stood in the Sea of Tranquillity “to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth”.