The Earth Gazers by Christopher Potter
From touching God and glory, to depression and divorce – the journeys of Apollo’s astronauts
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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