One July night 40 years ago, after probably one of the most tense aircraft landings ever, Neil Armstrong calmly announced to the world, “The Eagle has landed.” And so, with only 17 seconds of fuel to spare, space travel became a reality.
To read Andrew Chaikin’s Voices from the Moon is for me to be bathed in nostalgia, pride and emotion. Like Armstrong and many of the early astronauts, I am a Purdue University engineer of the 1950s—totally left-brained and pretty darn unemotional. However, reading the Apollo astronauts’ matter- of-fact descriptions of the entire 10 moon missions—from early preparation until the final splashdown—left me drained.
Chaikin takes quotes from over 150 hours of interviews with the astronauts and pairs them with breathtakingly beautiful photographs taken by the explorers to create an extraordinary first person chronicle of one of the greatest achievements in human history.
Reflecting back, there’s an ironic contrast between the first flight, Apollo 8, silently and peacefully orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, and the anything-but-silent-and-peaceful turmoil of that year back on earth— arguably one of the least peaceful years of the 20th century.
The Cold War space race drove the moon project. Ironically, on the same day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked and slept peacefully in the “Sea of Tranquility,” a Soviet aircraft crashed and burned in the “Ocean of Storms” on the moon.
Such great potential morality plays this era could inspire, but the astronauts were engineers and pilots, not philosophers and poets. They did not wax poetically. They were boring. They just did their jobs—like the thousands of other extraordinary people on their support team—and they did them all so flawlessly.
The astronauts were chosen for their scientific ability and trained until all emotion was washed out. The key was training—practice, practice, practice. So much practice that the real event became almost mundane.
Yet the astronauts were still caught off guard by situations unanticipated on the training simulator. For example, there was Bill Anders’ first view of Earth as he circled out from behind the moon—earthrise! “The most beautiful thing that I had ever seen,” he proclaimed. Totally unanticipated because “we were going to the moon and not looking back.” Voices from the Moon has a great selection of beautiful first photographs of Earth taken from space.
Several astronauts commented on how as they entered the moon’s shadow the command module began to round the dark side of the moon where there was total blackness in front of them—a gigantic black hole. No one was quite sure if they would be sucked right into the void. But then suddenly, whoosh—they went sliding into the sunlight, a mere 60 miles above the surface. Frank Borman describes the moon as resembling what Earth must have looked like before there was life. Anders added, “This space shot is man’s first step away from his home planet. We’re talking about a second Genesis.”
Walking on the moon was awe-inspiring. Dave Scott said, “Oh, the beauty—the spectacular beauty. I didn’t expect it. You are not heavy in one-sixth gravity, but you have the sensation of slow motion. You step and wait to be drawn back to the surface.”
Most of the astronauts had great anticipation, even jitters ahead of lunar liftoff. At one-sixth gravity, liftoff was more powerful than what they experienced in practice and shocked some of the astronauts. Mattingley said, “You’re really moving out. You can see the moon get small. I’m leaving that sucker. And you really don’t want to. Because, I mean … I can’t go back tomorrow.”
In spite of themselves, these left- brainers often do wax poetically. They were 240,000 miles away from home reading Genesis and experiencing it in a new way. But it was still the science and engineering that got them there and brought them home safely. The program sent engineers to the moon and brought back home-spun poets and philosophers, which may be a miracle of sorts. They traveled a half million miles round trip and splashed down only minutes off schedule. That took some plain old science and engineering miracles too.