The live broadcast on CBS with Walter Cronkite:
It is my opinion that this event is, and will remain, the peak of human achievement. I do not believe that the circumstances that allowed this event to take place will arise again, certainly not in the lifetime of anyone reading this. Political, social, economic and technical agents combined to facilitate the space program, but we have failed to embrace the values that drove those agents–indeed, we began to abandon them before the first Apollo mission flew. This is perfectly illustrated in the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon when then-Senator Walter Mondale attempts to shut down the program after the Apollo 1 fire. Consider that in 1903 we achieved a flight of some 120 feet at 6.8 miles per hour and 12 seconds duration. Sixty-six years later we flew 238,900 miles at a top speed in excess of 20,000 miles per hour with a flight duration of 8 days. Now consider that from the time that the Space Shuttle flew in 1981 until retired in 2011 we were unable to design, build and fly a replacement.
Despite the bleak outlook for the future of manned spaceflight–or perhaps because of those prospects–we should take every opportunity to study the events and recognize the heroes of that era. Heroes like Neil Armstrong, the reclusive first man to set foot on another world, and Gene Kranz, the flight director most people know from Ed Harris’ performance in Apollo 13. Earlier this year I read two books, one on each of these men (sorry, not Ed Harris), and I’d like to share some thoughts with you about them.
First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong is the authorized biography of Neil Armstrong written by James R. Hansen. It is at the same time an excellent biobraphy and a distinctly unsatisfying one. It is well written, engaging and covers every detail of Armstrong’s life that an aviation enthusiast could want to know. I won’t go into those details here–the book is worth the price of admission and I highly recommend it. Be warned, though, that you will be left wanting more when it comes to understanding the man and what makes him a hero. You’ll have to extrapolate. Armstrong doesn’t promote himself–you almost never see him in the news or on TV and even documentaries on Apollo 11 will feature Buzz Aldrin or possibly Michael Collins. You’ll get a sense of his introverted personality from the book, along with an incredible capacity for calm focus, but Hansen is not able to coax any emotion from him or reveal any of his soul. I want to avoid being presumptuous, but when these things are put together you can see that he was motivated to do the things he did as the result of something inside–maybe scientific curiosity, maybe a need to test himself or maybe even patriotism. Probably all three and more, leading me to my conclusion about Armstrong and heroes in general. Armstrong isn’t a hero because he was the first man to land on the moon. He bore all of the characteristics of (ergo, he was) a hero before the landing took place and the event only served to confirm the fact in the minds of others. I believe that is a key characteristic of a hero: a man either is or is not heroic, and if he is then he will live his life in a heroic manner whether he achieves fame for it or not. As an aside, did you know that there are no high-quality photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon? The mission plan had Neil behind the camera most of the time, so while there are many great shots of Buzz Aldrin the best color photo of Neil has him reflected along with the lunar module in Aldrin’s helmet visor. Shouldn’t someone have thought to get one?
If you read First Man, a perfect companion volume is Gene Kranz’ Failure is Not an Option recounting his experiences working in mission control from Mercury to Apollo. I found it fascinating to read about the same events from the perspective of both the astronauts and the controllers on the ground. Kranz was originally a pilot just like the astronauts, flying both the F-86 and F-100, but he chose to leave the Air Force when they reassigned him to fly tankers. He worked for a time in the aircraft industry before answering a newspaper ad seeking people for ground control duties at the new space center being built at Cape Canaveral, Florida. He was present from the early Mercury-Redstone launches all the way through Apollo, inluding being the Flight Director on duty during the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and the Lead Flight Director during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. How can a person handle that much responsibility, and the stress that comes with it? I have a very stressful job, such that I have to take medication to cope with it, but no one’s life is on the line. What kind of steel is a man made of who can take command of complex systems with lives at stake and see missions through from beginning to end, year after year? There is the hero again. Not only does he shun attention and self-aggrandizement, he makes the right decisions in the toughest situations a man can face and he does it repeatedly, with consistency and precision, for a lifetime.
If you are up for a third suggestion, allow me to present Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by David A. Mendell. This book is an academic work, and thicker than the other two, but it is the best book I’ve read on the Apollo computer and its role in the missions. HAL 9000 this is not. The Apollo computer was a wonder of engineering in the late 1960s but appears insignificant next to an ordinary personal computer. The machine had less power than a modern smart phone, but without it the moon landings could not have taken place. It essentially flew the mission, with the astronauts monitoring it and providing manual input when necessary. One is tempted to name it an honorary hero.