The Earth Gaz­ers by Christo­pher Pot­ter

From touch­ing God and glory, to de­pres­sion and di­vorce – the jour­neys of Apollo’s as­tro­nauts

The Guardian - Review - - Review - Tim Rad­ford

As he ap­proached the moon in 1971 the Apollo 14 as­tro­naut Stu­art Roosa played the hymn “How Great Thou Art”. When Michael Collins first went into space in 1966 – he was the one who stayed on board the com­mand mod­ule in 1969 while Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin took the steps – he car­ried a copy of the sonnet “High Flight” by the wartime Spit­fire pi­lot John Magee: his Gemini X craft had “slipped surly bonds of Earth” and “touched the face of God”.

All three mem­bers of the crew of Apollo 8 read the open­ing verses of Gen­e­sis in a global broad­cast when they rounded the moon in late De­cem­ber 1968. The fol­low­ing year, Aldrin sipped com­mu­nion wine on its sur­face, ate pre-con­se­crated wafers at a makeshift al­tar aboard the lu­nar mod­ule Ea­gle and read the words from the Gospel of John that be­gin “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Arm­strong af­ter­wards said: “I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”

Some­times the story of the Apollo ad­ven­ture reads like a gloss on the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”. Like 20th-cen­tury pil­grims in a rock­et­pow­ered ver­sion of Dante’s Par­adiso, the as­tro­nauts as­cend the sub­lu­nary sphere to­wards the realms of light and glory. But that may be be­cause peo­ple on the ground kept rais­ing the sub­ject of God: Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was an early con­tender when he wrongly quoted Yuri Ga­garin as hav­ing looked for God, but hav­ing seen him nowhere.

There is another quasi-reli­gious as­pect re­peat­edly al­luded to by as­tro­nauts and cos­mo­nauts even in their most sec­u­lar moods: from the van­tage of lu­nar or­bit, or even in low Earth or­bit, the planet seems like par­adise, an Eden of light and colour in a stark uni­verse of light and dark­ness.

The his­toric pho­to­graphs of the dis­tant Earth, at first in­ex­pertly taken by the as­tro­nauts, de­liv­ered a new per­spec­tive. For some, the mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence came from look­ing through the cap­sule win­dow: “We were the first per­sons to see the world in its ma­jes­tic to­tal­ity,” Frank Bor­man of Apollo 8 wrote. “An in­tensely emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence for each of us. This must be what God sees.” Al Wor­den of Apollo 15 said: “I jour­neyed all this way to ex­plore the moon, and yet I felt I was dis­cov­er­ing far more about our home planet.” The ex­pe­ri­ence was not en­tirely mys­ti­cal: on Apollo 8’s epic flight to the dark side of the moon, the one that cap­tured the fa­mous im­age of “Earthrise”, Bor­man also be­came the first as­tro­naut to vomit and suf­fer di­ar­rhoea: the crew had to chase the float­ing glob­ules of vomit and fae­ces with pa­per tow­els.

Christo­pher Pot­ter’s his­tory of the great ad­ven­ture nicely catches the ten­sion be­tween the sublime es­cape rep­re­sented by space travel and the hideous de­tail of get­ting there; the eu­pho­ria of great am­bi­tion and the bleak an­ti­cli­max of touch­down. The con­cen­tra­tion and team­work needed to sus­tain each mis­sion was such that Bor­man could say to his Apollo 8 crew, min­utes into Earth or­bit: “I don’t want to see you look­ing out the win­dow.” When, back on Earth, the two first men on the moon watched the TV footage of their ad­ven­ture, Aldrin turned to Arm­strong and said: “Neil, we missed the whole thing.”

Aldrin fol­lowed his great mo­ment with “a good old Amer­i­can ner­vous break­down”, de­pres­sion and di­vorce. Arm­strong, al­ways the si­lent one, be­came even more reclu­sive, and split from his wife (of the first 30 as­tro­nauts, only seven mar­riages sur­vived, Pot­ter says). Collins ex­claimed: “If one more fat cigar smoker blows smoke in my face and yells ‘What was it re­ally like up there?’ I think I may bury my fist in his flabby gut; I have had it with the same ques­tion over and over again.”

The story of Apollo has been told over and over again: it was a pro­found geopo­lit­i­cal ad­ven­ture; a defin­ing mo­ment in hu­man his­tory; a tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel that con­tin­ues to de­liver dis­cov­ery; and an ex­traor­di­nary story of in­di­vid­ual ad­ven­ture that grew from bloody con­flict. Each ver­sion is nec­es­sar­ily se­lec­tive, a view from one frame of ref­er­ence. Pot­ter brack­ets his with the story of Charles Lind­bergh, who in 1927 went aloft in the Spirit of St Louis, and flew across the At­lantic to Paris and into his­tory. He and his wife, Anne Mor­row Lind­bergh, vis­ited the Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts be­fore they took off and the great avi­a­tor sur­vived long enough to see the can­cel­la­tion of the last mis­sions: the pub­lic lost in­ter­est, and so did politi­cians.

Lind­bergh un­der­stood the mys­ti­cal as­pects of lonely flight; he ad­mired Amer­ica’s rocket pi­o­neer, Robert God­dard, and he had kept in touch with the Apollo pro­gramme. He re­sponded to those pho­to­graphs of a frag­ile planet and joined the swell of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern that grew from the ad­ven­ture. He had, no­to­ri­ously, been an early ad­mirer of Hitler’s Ger­many.

There is an all-too-brief glimpse of Richard Un­der­wood, the man be­hind Nasa’s grudg­ing in­vest­ment in cam­eras for the Apollo crews. And there is too lit­tle on the tardy ap­pear­ance of sci­ence in an ad­ven­ture dom­i­nated by engi­neers and test pi­lots. But then, in a decades-long drama with such a crowded cast, all en­coun­ters are too brief. Anne Mor­row Lind­bergh, who for a short time be­came close to that other great avi­a­tor An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry, emerges from this story as an ad­mirable ob­server. The other fe­male star of the nar­ra­tive is Mada­lyn O’Hair, the com­bat­ive and ec­cen­tric founder of an athe­ist church, who “sorely taxed” the Nasa ad­min­is­tra­tion with le­gal chal­lenges to the idea of reli­gious read­ings in space.

This fo­cus on O’Hair and Lind­bergh means that the nar­ra­tive looks less in­tently at the other play­ers. Sergei Korolev, sur­vivor of Stalin’s cruel purges, beget­ter of the Sput­nik and Vos­tok launches that stung the US into ac­tion, re­mains a ghostly and dis­tant ac­tor. Wern­her von Braun, the SS of­fi­cer who ex­ploited con­cen­tra­tion camp slave labour to drive the V-2 rocket pro­gramme in Ger­many and then ne­go­ti­ated a deal with the in­vad­ing US forces to reach safety for him­self, his brother and his engi­neers in Huntsville, Alabama, re­mains an un­re­solved fig­ure. The as­tro­nauts liked him, and more im­por­tantly trusted him. He dis­cov­ered God in the US, ig­nored the no­to­ri­ous seg­re­ga­tion laws of the south and pri­vately met Martin Luther King. He pro­moted an agenda of space su­pe­ri­or­ity for the west, but the Wash­ing­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion ig­nored him un­til the jolt of Sput­nik 1 in 1957. By the launch of Saturn V, Von Braun’s com­plic­ity in ap­palling war crimes had be­come a mat­ter sel­dom dis­cussed.

The be­wil­der­ing, com­pelling, com­plex and pre­car­i­ous story of Apollo is a tale for­ever wait­ing to be told again, per­haps never com­pletely. “What can you say,” asked John Glenn, the first Amer­i­can in or­bit, “about a day in which you get to see four sun­sets?”

Defin­ing mo­ment … Buzz Aldrin in 1969

456pp, Head of Zeus, £25

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