Fintan O’Toole: They went to the moon; we discovered the Earth

The point was not to get to the moon but to return from its great desolation,  to come back to this astonishing Earth. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images
What moved me as a child in 1969 wasn’t the moon landing but the dramatic splashdown

I thought very seriously about whether I could get the goldfish bowl on my head. I went as far as scooping out the three fish I’d got at the carnival and putting them in a tumbler of water. But the hole just wasn’t big enough – even if I could get the upturned bowl over my face, I’d never be able to get it off again.

I had to put the fish back in. It was a great disappointment. There was nothing else that could approximate an astronaut’s helmet with its wide visor of clear glass. Though, we didn’t call them astronauts, just as we didn’t call the Soviets cosmonauts. We called them all what they were: spacemen.

That summer of 1969, when I was 11, none of us were cowboys or Indians. We were all, even with nothing better than cardboard boxes with slots cut out for the visors and bits of old rope trailing out to feed us oxygen from imaginary tanks on our backs, spacemen.

Just 10 years later, a friend of my own age was teaching young teenage girls in a secondary school in Dublin. They were working on a text that had the word “splashdown” in it. None of them – not one – knew what it meant. When she told me, I was stupefied and strangely sad.

How could a moment that seemed, in those July days of 1969, so momentous, so transformative, now mean so little? I hadn’t seen the moon landing live on TV; when Neil Armstrong climbed down on to its surface, it was almost four in the morning in Dublin.

How often had he thought of it at night on Earth? How could a man face such loneliness?

But I had watched the replays from early next morning and then the images of him and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in the weak gravity and surveying the fuzzy, pock-marked aridity from which, we were sure, something new and wonderful would blossom.

I had watched the lift-off from that cold surface of their shiny little cylinder, so like a fragile insect willing itself into flight, as Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the mother ship, their gentle ascent from the moon like a kid’s toy version of the titanic, thunderous launch of the vast rocket at Cape Canaveral five days earlier.

Above all, I watched splashdown on July 24th and for me it was always the wonder of wonders, more moving and meaningful than even the moon landing itself.

I remember seeing the headline on The Evening Herald: Will They Get Back? President John F Kennedy had pledged the US to the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”. It is easy to forget that the second part seemed more improbable than the first.

The RTÉ Guide, which was our version of Mission Control, had little profiles of the astronauts. In the breezy account of Michael Collins (“the inevitable Irishman, humorous, philosophical”) was the most terrifying sentence I had read: “If anything should go wrong while the other two are on the moon surface, he will have to take the decision to leave them and return to Earth.”

Apollo has splashdown!

The hint that Armstrong and Aldrin might be abandoned to die in that airless desert was haunting enough– would they sit in the tiny Eagle lander and wait for the oxygen to run out, like Scott of the Antarctic and his men waiting in their tents for the cold to finish them off, or would they just bounce off in their spacesuits over the hill towards some crater beyond the range of the camera?

Even worse was the thought of Collins, the inevitable Irishman (sure even his wife’s father was from Mayo), facing that other inevitability. How often had he thought of it at night on Earth? How could a man face such loneliness?

I imagined him looking down on his friends through his little window and giving them a last tragic salute as he fired up the thrusters to escape from the Moon’s orbit and sail away from his marooned comrades. Would everyone not always hate him for it, even if he was only following orders?

It is hard, when you know how happily it all ended, to remember the dread of doom. Nobody knew what might happen. Would the lander be buried on touchdown in thick layers of lunar dust and the men left to suffocate inside? Would Armstrong and Aldrin be fried by solar radiation when they walked on the surface?

Were the Russians planning to attack them? (A Soviet Luna probe was also in orbit around the Moon and there was speculation about what it might be up to.) Were there strange and deadly bacteria or viruses in this alien environment? (The astronauts were sprayed with disinfectant as soon as they emerged back on Earth.)

Above all: will they get back? Will their Columbia capsule, hurtling through the atmosphere at a speed of 33,000ft per second, burn up in a brief fireball? Even on our little TV screen, even in black and white, the streams of ionised gases signalling the intense heat that engulfed Columbia on re-entry had an ominous power.

And then, there had never been such silence. The radio blackout after re-entry lasted nine minutes but even when it was supposed to have ended there were questions from Houston but no answers.

The three Apollo crewmen, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin await a navy helicopter from the USS Hornet after the Apollo 11 lunar mission splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: Nasa/Underwood Archives/Getty Images
The three Apollo crewmen, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin await a navy helicopter from the USS Hornet after the Apollo 11 lunar mission splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: Nasa/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Nasa’s log records these moments: “Apollo 11, Houston in the blind. Air Boss has the visual contact. [No answer.]”

Then the cameras lost sight of the capsule again as it disappeared into a cloud. When it came back into view, Armstrong could be heard: “Apollo 11 at 1,500ft.”

And within seconds the controller in Houston: “Splashdown! Apollo has splashdown!”

The cramped cockpit

The word had all the sublime beauty of death defied. Collins recalled later that he was awed by the intense violet colour of the Pacific as he dropped towards it and thought to himself: “Nice ocean you’ve got here, planet Earth.”

I couldn’t see that colour on TV, but even so the liquid of the sea did seem so gentle and welcoming in contrast to the rocks and craters of the moon. When the door opened and the men emerged, it seemed, not merely that they were wonderfully alive, but they had been miraculously reborn from the ocean, like butch, blue-eyed male versions of Aphrodite emerging fully-formed from the white foam of the waves, or like crop-haired Orpheuses returned from the underworld.

Years later, I stood in front of that Columbia command module in the Smithsonian museum in Washington and felt my knees weaken, as if I was being forced to genuflect.

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr landing on the moon on July 20th, 1969. Photograph: NASA/Newsmakers
Astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr landing on the moon on July 20th, 1969. Photograph: NASA/Newsmakers

It overwhelmed me by being so underwhelming: a tiny, rust-coloured cone of bolted-together panels with signs of stress at the edges, tiny cracks on the rim and mangy patches where the outer metal skin was burned away by the heat.

Inside, in the cramped little cockpit, the dials and wires and gauges now seemed primitive, relics, not of an astonishing technological breakthrough but of an archaic world.

Yet to me it was all numinous, a portal to the sacred mystery of that childhood vision. It was not a capsule but a cocoon from which, for a moment, a transfigured humanity had seemed to emerge. They were not men who had come out of it into that Pacific light but marvels. 

This was not history. The weekend of the moon landing, Edward Kennedy drove his car off Chappaquiddick bridge, drowning a young female passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, and disturbing our ideal of the Kennedys as the Holy Family of Irish Catholicism.  

General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, flew back to Washington from a trip to Vietnam, where, he reported, “the situation is well in hand”.

Seven Soviet warships arrived in Havana harbour on a visit to mark “Cuban-Soviet fraternal solidarity”.

Fifteen thousand people attended the funeral in Derry, on the evening of the Moon landing, of Samuel Devenny, who had died from injuries inflicted during a police raid on his home, a harbinger of worse Troubles to come.

These things were history – splashdown was something else. It was not really about the Moon either. For what is that lump of rock anyway? Aldrin, during his Moon walk, described its surface as “magnificent desolation” but it was more desolate than magnificent.

‘Dusty nothingness’

On the morning of the landing, The Irish Times carried a column by the novelist Kate O’Brien: “I must confess that I am dead cold about this isolated and terrifying point in human history…”

She called the whole thing “an expression of national vanity at its worst”. Both the US and the Soviets, she predicted, would continue with their crimes “against human thought and human honour” while burning up “millions, trillions, of money on this hysterical race towards what may prove to be ashes and deadly, dusty nothingness”.

O’Brien was right, of course – the whole show was a proxy war that glamorised the terrible conflict between the superpowers by turning it into a version of mediaeval single combat with Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin as exemplary warriors for their respective causes.

But splashdown somehow transcended that reality. It gave the thing a different point – the point was not to get to the Moon but to return from its great desolation, to rise up again from its deadly, dusty nothingness, to come back to this astonishing Earth.

Columbia command module in the Smithsonian museum in Washington. Photograph: Eric Long
Columbia command module in the Smithsonian museum in Washington. Photograph: Eric Long

We soon got bored of the moon. The feverish speculation about what might lie in store for us there gave way in our world to jokes that there was an Irish version of Nasa – Bord na Moona – and that the Americans were not first to land: an Irish family, the Mooneys, were already there.

And in this slow disillusionment, we were not really wrong. The moon was indeed rather a disappointment. When a fragment of moon rock was displayed in a big glass bubble in the foyer of the US embassy in Ballsbridge in 1970, it was, as Dr Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, worth seeing but not worth going to see: a greyish stone the size and shape of a desiccated walnut.

When Alan Sheppard played golf on the lunar surface during the Apollo 14 mission, it all began to seem fatally frivolous. By the end of 1972, it was all over. So, for me, was childhood.

There was no new epoch, no giant leap for mankind. After the lunar adventure, there was just the old lunacy of war and injustice. The spacemen were not gods, just men.

But there was, and is, an afterglow. In the stories humanity has always told itself, there is forever the same goal, forever the same locus of desire: home. The going out is all so much prelude to the coming back.

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins came back to the dazzling violet ocean, to the protective atmosphere, to the breathable air, to the temperate heat, to wives and children, to the fruitfulness of an Earth that was a teeming, living everything beside the moon’s parched, sterile nothing.

They splashed down into a place that had become, in their absence, even more like home.