I was one of the 600 million people who watched Neil Armstrong’s Small Step on to the Sea of Tranquility live on a tiny black and white television. Dragged out of bed in the early hours on 21 July 1969, I only vaguely understood what was happening. I was four and a half. But I knew that a man on the Moon was a big deal.
Back then, everyone assumed this was indeed a giant leap into the future, the beginning of a space age not for the chosen few but for us all. By the time I was at school, we all took it for granted that we would be following in Armstrong’s footsteps when we grew up.
We collected the Apollo badges and, later, glued together Airfix models of the magnificent spacecraft, towering machines that looked more like cathedrals than vehicles. The future beckoned, as shiny-white as those sundrenched rockets on their Florida launchpads.
I was one of the millions back then who fell in love with space and it is partly thanks to Neil Armstrong and fellow crew member Buzz Aldrin that I write books about it and have tried to meet as many of the Moonwalkers as I can.
But sadly, that dream that I and others would be able to follow in their footsteps was not to be. They are all old men, now, the Moonwalkers, and with the death of Armstrong there are just eight humans left alive who have walked on the surface of another world.
When they are gone, we will have lost the last living links with what British space historian Dr David Harland has called “a piece of the 21st century transported into the 1960s”. As the Apollo programme recedes into history, the more unreal it appears.
Back in 1961, just 57 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright first took to the air in their string-and-canvas contraptions, President John F Kennedy pledged to put an American on the Moon and bring him home again before 1970. Only one person, the Russian Yuri Gagarin, had flown in space.
America’s manned space programme, Mercury, was embryonic and the US had to rely on the former-Nazi rocketeer Wernher von Braun to telescope what should have realistically taken 40 years into less than a decade. For Apollo to succeed, a whole technology had to be created from scratch.
This meant not just firing space capsules into space and splashing them down again, but assembling large complex craft in orbit, keeping humans alive in the radiation-drenched vacuum of outer space for days at a time and somehow navigating across a quarter of a million miles of space with pinpoint accuracy.
It meant not just building a rocket capable of propelling 120 tons of material into orbit (the mighty Saturn V) but developing computers powerful enough and small enough to fit into a capsule. It is a myth that Apollo gave us Teflon, but without it we would have had to wait a lot longer for the computer revolution to arrive (the Apollo Guidance Computer was the direct ancestor of your laptop or iPhone). But the technology alone would have been nothing without finding a new breed of heroes to ride in and operate these magnificent machines.
America’s astronauts defied easy categorisation. Armstrong himself was two parts warrior and hyper-fit macho hero to one pensive engineering and aeronautics-obsessed geek. I have been privileged to meet four of the Moonwalkers. They are indeed men apart. All brilliant, some prickly.
Armstrong was usually described as a “recluse”, but he was not; this being a word used by journalists to mean “does not give interviews”. One gets the impression that it was all too much, the sheer weight of expectation upon the shoulders of the first Moonwalker more than any human could handle.
The second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, like most astronauts preferred then and now to talk about flying and the mathematics of celestial navigation than about the glory. Aldrin, an intense, extraordinarily intelligent man, told me that one of the mistakes made by Nasa was “that we never sent anyone who could really communicate what was happening”.
As well as engineers and pilots, the Moonwalkers should have included writers, a poet perhaps, or an artist among the pilot-jocks. Then, along with the seismographs and geological samples, the analysis of the lunar soil and measurements of craters and mountains, we would have heard how the Moon smells of gunpowder and tastes of burnt sulphur; of how, after taking their bulky suits off in the module, moon dust and grit would get into every crack and crevice on the body, of the cold and the terror, and exactly what it is like to gaze up at the Earth, a blue and green orb that from the Moon appears four times the size that the Moon does from our world. And the Moon ‑ the reality of it ‑ remains a missed opportunity for art and literature.
Even as Armstrong, Armstrong and the Command Module pilot Mike Collins were on their way, the decision was being made to abort humanity’s giant leap into the Cosmos. Politics played a big part.
Richard Nixon inherited Apollo from his hated rival JFK and, while he was happy to bathe in the reflected glory of Apollo 11, he saw no need to follow it up with the planned Moon bases and manned missions to Mars that von Braun insisted were possible by 1985.
The last three Moon missions ‑ Apollos 18, 19 and 20 ‑ were quietly cancelled, a tragic decision as the rockets had been built and the money already spent. NASA’s grand vision shrank to a parochial horizon of space stations and shuttles, missions that were banal in their ambition and scope and in which the public soon lost interest.
Even during its pomp, when Apollo was hoovering up about 4 per cent of America’s GDP, polls showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for manned spaceflight. For the enthusiasts, of which there were millions, Apollo was the most important adventure in the history of mankind. But for the rest ‑ many more millions, it was as relevant as Dorothy’s journey to Oz. So perhaps the greatest irony of Apollo was that its very success ended human expansion into space.
Armstrong’s triumph was not the beginning of something new; it was, in fact, the beginning of the end. By meeting JFK’s absurd, vaingorious deadline, Nasa won the space race and the thing about races is that when they are won, they are over.
It is a myth that America turned its back on space because of the cost; America’s wars consume far more cash than even Apollo did. There has always been the money ‑what has been lacking since JFK made his pledge has been vision and will.
A further irony is that while enthusiasm for real space exploration may have been limited, America’s ‑ and the rest of the world’s ‑ enthusiasm for fake space exploration has, in the Apollo years, boomed.
The US spends far more money playing computer games and watching movies about pretend aliens and astronauts than it does on Nasa. The most successful films ever made ‑ Avatar, Star Wars, ET and the rest ‑ have been about aliens and imagined futures in space. Here in Britain the BBC has proclaimed that Dr Who, a programme that began in the Apollo era, may go on for ever.
My belief is that Apollo was simply a programme out of its time, a dead-end simply because it came 50, maybe even 100 years too early. We went to the Moon and simply didn’t know what to do next, just as the Vikings discovered America half a millennium before they should.
In a recent, rare interview, Armstrong bemoaned the lack of direction at Nasa, and he was right. Today, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many people believe he never actually went to the Moon or stepped on its surface, that the landing was brilliantly faked. We are still exploring space, of course, but by proxy, using machines such as the brilliant Curiosity rover that landed on Mars last week.
Nasa’s hopes of getting a man on Mars and beyond are doomed and it is probably best for now to leave it to the robots, to search for life in the cosmos and leave the giant leaps to someone else.
Because someone ‑ most likely the Chinese or privateers ‑ will one day take up the Apollo mantle from Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard, Mitchell, Scott, Irwin, Young, Duke, Cernan and Schmitt.
But for the surviving Moonmen, and maybe even for people my age, that day will probably come too late.
Michael Hanlon is the author of ‘The Real Mars’ and ‘The Worlds of Galileo’, which chronicle the robotic exploration of the Solar System.