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Sat 14 December 2019
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Otto English on the beauty in that brief moment on 20 July 1969 when the human race came together and marvelled silently at the great things we can do.


You’d have to have been living on, well the Moon, to have missed the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission this week. Space stuff is everywhere. It’s so prevalent that it’s tempting to respond in the way my son did when I tried to engage him on the topic. He yawned, he stretched, he picked up his phone and wandered off saying: “I get it, they went to the Moon… amazing…”

I don’t really blame him. He’s grown up with magical things like the internet and Xbox and that giant fibreglass cat on the Catford shopping centre. What relevance does a journey to our nearest celestial body, some 50 years ago, have in his life? 

Aldrin, a deeply religious man invites “each person listening in… to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way”

Many of us probably feel much the same. The Moon landing has become one of history’s clichés. We’ve all seen the footage a thousand times. That last hop by Neil Armstrong onto the surface, the jarred sound-clip of “that’s one small step for man – one giant leap for mankind”, the pictures of the flag being planted, the return to Earth, the ticker-tape parade, yadda, yadda, yadda. 

And then, you revisit the event and realise that, yes, all of that was part of it, but something else – something rather magical – occurred as well.

A footprint of Buzz Aldrin on the soft surface of the moon

The actual landing is like something dreamed up in Hollywood.

First there is the drama. Having separated from the mother ship, the lunar module descends. As it nears the surface, Armstrong looks out of his window and sees that the target site is strewn with boulders. There’s the very considerable risk of a crash, even as the people of the world – a quarter of a million miles away – look on. Taking control of the delicate craft, he dodges the boulders and two massive craters before touching down with less than a minute of the fuel needed for an ‘abort’ left in the tank. Three seconds later, the engines are shut down and there follows a machine like patter of conversation.

Everyone’s breath had been taken quite literally away by the magnitude of the event; by the scale of what the human race had just achieved… It’s human poetry.

“OK, engine stop. ACA – out of detent.” Armstrong says: “Out of detent. Auto.” Buzz Aldrin continues: “Mode control – both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm – off. 413 is in.”

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong tells NASA.

“Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot” comes the reply – and then comes the silence. The NASA controllers don’t cheer, or celebrate, they wipe their brows and light their cigarettes.


The Sound of Silence

Watching the documentary 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, currently available on BBC Iplayer, it is that silence that gets you.

CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, a veteran journalist – who had found fame as an embedded reporter, flying in bombing missions over Germany in World War Two, who had landed in a glider at the Battle of the Bulge and who broke the news of Kennedy’s assassination – is also rendered dumbstruck. He takes his glasses off and rubs his hands. His guest, Wally Schirra, the only man in 1969 to have been into space three times, has tears in his eyes. 

But what can Wally say?

“Say something Wally, I’m speechless!” Cronkite says.

The Apollo 11 crew: Commander, Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin

Everyone’s breath had been taken quite literally away by the magnitude of the event; by the scale of what the human race had just achieved. Just 66 years after the Wright brothers first took to the air, for a 12-second flight in a plane made of spruce wood and glue, two men had landed on the surface of the Moon. 

It’s human poetry.

Soon the chatter starts up again, but after a few moments, Aldrin, a deeply religious man invites “each person listening in… to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

And everything in space falls silent again.

“Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot” comes the reply – and then comes the silence.

We know now that, at this point, Aldrin secretly took Holy Communion, while the agnostic Armstrong looked on, but it is the pause for thought, a quarter of a million miles away on Earth, that fascinates me half a century on. 

Six hundred million people watched all of this play out and presumably, whatever their faith or belief, many fell silent at Buzz Aldrin’s request. That is one-sixth of the world’s then population sharing a moment. 

I have tried in vain to think of a comparable positive collective experience. Yuri Gagarin’s epic first flight into space in 1961 was equally extraordinary of course, but it wasn’t a live TV event.

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It’s always a mistake to be nostalgic. The Planet Earth of 1969 was one divided by Cold War animosity and dotted with nasty proxy wars that were wreaking havoc on nations and lives on every continent. And yet, for a brief moment, the human race came together and marvelled silently at the great things we can do. 

What a pity there aren’t more moments like these.

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