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Men on the Moon: Lessons from the space race

Book review: A History For The Future and Chasing the Moon take stock of what happened, and what it all meant

When Neil Armstrong eased down the ladder from the Apollo 11 lander’s hatch, the way we look at the moon changed. It remained an inspiration to lovers, poets and artists. But it was also a place you could visit. We’d seen people there on TV. There were footprints in the dust.

There still are: not much changes on the moon. But there are no new ones since the last Apollo mission in 1972. America won a race of its own devising in which it was the only serious competitor, then lost interest. So, it seems, did most other people. We remember those days now when one of the dwindling band of moon men dies, or on anniversaries.

July is a big month, 50 years since that first footfall. And both these books, in their different ways, take that half-centenary as a cue to take stock of what happened, and what it all meant.

Chasing the Moon shows how the huge resources Apollo called for were mobilised against the cold war, civil-rights struggles and anti-Vietnam War protests

Chasing the Moon, by Robert Stone and Alan Andres (William Collins, 359pp, £20) is a history of the space effort. It's US-centred, understandably, and delves deep into the people and politics of the decade leading up to Apollo 11. It's an oft-told story, but the authors use archives and some new interviews well to refresh it for new readers.

They provide glimpses of early rocket pioneers in the USSR and the US, and follow the career of Wernher von Braun from directing a production line of V2s built with slave labour in the second World War to US media celebrity and designer of Apollo’s Saturn V rocket. This take on the space race is strong on politics and social history, showing how the huge resources Apollo called for were mobilised against a background of the cold war and, latterly, civil-rights struggles and anti-Vietnam War protests.

Stone and Andres’s book complements a new four-part documentary on the space race. As befits their trade, they also weave a narrative of how the new civilian space agency, Nasa, developed its relationship with the media, especially TV, into their story of the successive Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches.

The first live broadcasts from space launches began as Nasa was still gearing up for great things after the Russians punctured American pride by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. The White House was reluctant, fearing coast-to-coast coverage of disasters. But approval came when President John F Kennedy was reassured that the Mercury capsule’s escape rocket would lift the astronaut below clear of an exploding launch vehicle, still a common mission endpoint.

The US networks scrambled to cover the first manned Mercury launch, in May 1961. Kennedy, unprepared, watched it on a small black-and-white portable in his secretary’s office.

The first moon landing was seen in black and white too, space-ready colour cameras coming too late for Apollo 11 in 1969. These are the images – fleeting, blurry, monochrome glimpses – that some of us remember. Thanks to communication satellites that were a more practical result of the space programme, Armstrong and Aldrin’s encounter with lunar dust became one of the first global media events. A fifth of the world’s population watched it live. National networks improvised new formats. CBS commissioned a replica of the HAL supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 to assist Walter Cronkite. In Britain, visiting science fiction author Ray Bradbury walked out on David Frost’s 10-hour “moon party” on the ITV network, featuring music from Engelbert Humperdinck, Lulu and Cliff Richard, complaining it had ruined “the greatest night in the history of the world”.

Oliver Morton blends fact, purported fact, avowed fiction, art, sociology, science and speculation into a new brew that yields a contribution to the psychogeography of the solar system

That lost fragment of lunar cultural history doesn't make it into Oliver Morton's The Moon: A History for the Future (Profile, 333pp, £20), but he ranges more widely, and more thoughtfully, over the many ways of contemplating our nearest neighbour.

Like his splendid earlier book Mapping Mars, his book blends fact, purported fact, avowed fiction, art, sociology, science and speculation, into a new brew that yields a contribution to the as-yet largely unwritten psychogeography of the solar system.

The guiding assumption is that the people saying things about the moon, and their reasons for saying them, are as interesting as the stories they are telling. That is true whether they are recounting one of the many moon myths he deftly summarises, theorising about its origin or what governs its motion, or imagining its place in a future of off-world human colonies.

The fact that, unlike Mars, people have actually been to the moon features too, of course. Indeed, Morton is more interested in the technical and human achievements of Nasa, in some ways, than the authors of Chasing the Moon. His single chapter on the Apollo landings manages to convey intimate details of the enterprise – the 21 stitched and glued layers of the spacesuit, its drainage, the gunpowder-and-ash smell of the dust and grit it brings back into the lunar module – that elude Stone and Andres’s widescreen history.

He also makes more of the pivot in perception it is now commonplace to ascribe to the space programme. Entire books have been devoted to the image of Earthrise, taken from lunar orbit in 1968, our planet a sparkling blue and green sphere, the moon a colourless, airless, lifeless desert. But, as so often, Morton sums up innumerable readings of the image in a phrase: “looking out matters most as a way of looking back”.

He argues that inversion has now overtaken astronomy, which is increasingly focused on the search for exoplanets that might support life. The Earth was long ago displaced from the centre of the universe, but we have yet to find anything like it. So today “we sift through the endless streams of starlight for something that looks like earthlight”.

Suited, gloved, booted, helmeted, diapered, breathing canned air, peering through darkened visors, Armstrong and Aldrin can move around. But they sense nothing directly

Well, some of us do. Morton moves on to those who have taken a different message from the Earth’s beautiful uniqueness. Elon Musk and other technophile billionaires think it’s vital for the human future that we find new places to live, and have the money to do something about it. Musk and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are among those backing new, commercial space missions that will soon see a new generation of moon landers, after all these years when moon dust has lain undisturbed.

Will the moon bases so often seen in science fiction follow? Quite possibly, and Morton has instructive things to say about that as well. But he is clear they will remain tied to the Earth, in ways large and small. That conclusion builds through a book that is mind-expanding in its combination of a poetic susceptibility with scientific rigour and psychological insight.

But it crystallises when he recalls that climb down the ladder in 1969. In perhaps his most characteristic insight, he points out that Armstrong and Aldrin can only venture on to the moon’s surface because they bring Earth with them. Suited, gloved, booted, helmeted, diapered, breathing canned air, peering through darkened visors, they can move around. But they sense nothing directly. They are on the moon: see them there on TV. At the same time, he writes, “In a way they never reach it.”

It’s a powerful reminder that whatever we think we know about the moon is a product of the human imagination as much as of any discipline in observation or technique. And it’s why one book of this pair will stay with most readers longer than the other.

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