by British Awakening – 20 Jul 2019
Alan Bean, fourth man on the moon
Image By MBisanz - Own work, Public Domain, Link
On July 20th, 1969 at 20:17 UTC the Apollo Lunar Module, Eagle, landed safely on the Moon in the Sea of Tranquillity. On board the Eagle astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin reported back to Earth “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Perhaps less well known is that shortly after landing Buzz quietly took Communion with some wine and bread to give thanks to God.
Some six hours later Neil Armstrong opened the hatch to Eagle and descended a short ladder to place his feet on the Moon and make his famous declaration “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Nineteen minutes later he was joined by Aldrin and the two astronauts went on to spend two and a quarter hours together on the Moon’s surface setting up experiments and collecting about 21kg of Moon rock. Behind them they left a plaque, signed by both astronauts and Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, the plaque bore the words ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind’.
After seven hours of rest Armstrong and Aldrin were woken up by Mission Control to prepare for their return. Two and half hours later Eagle re-joined the orbiting Command Module and the astronaut Michael Collins (who for a time qualified as the loneliest human in history). The three astronauts then made their successful return to Earth. On August 13th the three astronauts, now hailed as heroes, enjoyed the honour of a ticker tape parade in New York.
There were a further six Apollo missions to the Moon, five successfully made landings, one – Apollo 13 made a story in itself, all returned safely to Earth. In total twelve men walked on the Moon, most were in the military although interestingly the first, Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11) and the last, Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17), were civilians.
I was too young to really remember any of the Apollo missions although I have a hazy memory of being mugged off by my Dad on one of the later missions when I complained it was still daylight when I was sent to bed, ’the Astronauts took the darkness with them’ he explained. Good one Dad, you had me there.
The debates about the cost of the missions continue to this day but few would argue that putting a man on the Moon was not one of mankind’s greatest technical achievements. For me it always meant more than any that, even as a child I sensed the wonder of what we had achieved, it was as though for the first time ever mankind looked up from our own world and understood our real destiny lay in the firmament and not our eternal squabbles about diminishing resources on Earth.
Still today when the moon is full I gaze up to the Sea of Tranquillity – that dark patch slightly to the right of the centre and I think of Neil and a very dear relative who passed away with him on the same day. Sometimes I think more deeply about what Armstrong must have felt, how could you even begin to describe the feeling as the hatch opened and he saw the lunar surface up close for the first time? How could any human control that adrenaline rush no matter how highly trained, no matter how self disciplined?
Some say he fluffed his lines forgetting the pronoun ‘a’, others argue he said it but the transmission broke at a vital moment, for me it matters little, no human has ever acted as the singularity in time and space for so much human endeavour, the pressure must have been almost unbearable. When I think deeper still I ask myself if part of me would despair at that point? Despair because the ultimate achievement not only in my life but in the life of every human being that ever lived will shortly pass. As I return to the lunar module and head back to earth is everything now one long anti climax?
Armstrong, an already intensely private man, gave little further insight into these emotions. His companion on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, has been much more talkative but still does not fully convey what must be very difficult to describe. Perhaps this is why I have always been drawn to Alan Bean – the fourth man on the Moon; Bean has painted his exploits obsessively since his return, for me his artwork conveys more completely the emotional connection I seek. You could argue the Moon really put a zap on Alan Bean’s head, which is something I can relate to, I figure if it had been me on the Moon I would have gone down the same path as Bean. Even though I can’t paint for toffee.
Fifty years on and the world is not the place I expected it to be, I live in a society that seems to have lost its way. It is difficult to see how today the West could produce political leadership that had the will to undertake a project like Apollo; after all John F Kennedy knew his two terms would likely be over before men walked on the Moon, one of his successors would claim the glory yet he still committed to it. All the more remarkable that Kennedy managed to commit the American people to it and caught the imagination of the rest of the people of the free world.
Sometimes we forget that in 1969 the Vietnam War was raging, it was over a year from the 1968 Tet offensive, America was quite clearly in an unwinnable war, race riots raged across American cities, and political violence saw the slayings of Dr.Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Against all of this Apollo shone through and in the annals of history I believe that a thousand years from now it will be for this that America is remembered.
Fifty years on and I feel there are more dark days than hopeful ones, maybe that’s just me getting older. I guess in a certain sense my obsession with Apollo is because it serves as a touchstone for a time when the world seemed more hopeful and the West had a stronger sense of direction. Fifty years on and we find ourselves led by politicians with little imagination, a media that few trust anymore, and a recalcitrant academia that appears to prefer to detach itself from what Heraclitus described as the logos and chooses instead the intellectual dead end of ideology.
Yet we are no different to the people that came before us.
Fifty years ago we set foot on the Moon. I really do think that if we just started to believe in ourselves a bit more, and stopped investing our belief in people that do not deserve it, we can reset things, we can get ourselves back on track. Look up at the Moon, and remind yourself that we went there, that there is the best of us, that up there is what the human spirit can achieve. Remind yourself to not always look down but to sometimes look up, up to the heavens where our true destiny lay. Fifty years ago we went to the Moon, we did that.
We did that.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.