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Apollo 11's Bright Glare

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 19, 2009

ROCKET MEN

The Epic Story Of the First Men On the Moon

By Craig Nelson

Viking. 404 pp. $27.95

To understand how completely Apollo 11 dominates the history of the space program, consider for a moment the previous mission, Apollo 10. The astronauts on that one were . . . um . . . hold on . . . Googling as we speak . . . John Young, Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford.

All they did was get in a capsule atop a 30-story rocket, blast off the planet and fly all the freakin' way to the moon. Two of them then got into a contraption called a lunar module and descended toward the moon's surface. Down, down they went. But they didn't land, because this was just a practice run for lunar orbit rendezvous. The glory of the first lunar landing would be reserved for the next mission. Indeed, to ensure that no eager-beaver astronaut would say to heck with it and try to land, NASA didn't give the ascent module enough fuel to leave the moon's surface. The astronauts would have been stranded if they'd ignored orders.

And so they dutifully flew home, their mission soon lost in the glare of Apollo 11.

Forty years on, the space program is still struggling to figure out how to top the fabled moonshot of July 1969. Apollo 11 may have been the greatest achievement in space flight, but arguably, it nearly killed the space program. Because what do you do after you shoot the moon?

You build a space shuttle. You build a space station. You launch telescopes. You dither around in low-Earth orbit for decades. But no matter what you do, you find that Apollo 11 is an impossible act to follow.

This summer, under orders from President Obama, NASA's human space flight program is getting a soup-to-nuts review by a 10-person panel headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The committee will spend a lot of time pondering rocket design (which do you prefer, the Ares 1 or an EELV?). But while racing toward an end-of-summer deadline, the committee will grapple with a more basic question: What are we doing in space?

NASA currently plans to finish building the international space station and retire the shuttle, probably somewhere around the end of 2010. We're supposed to have a new fleet of spacecraft ready by about 2015. NASA hopes to put astronauts on the moon again by 2020. This is not an Apollo-style rush job but an incremental expansion of our presence in space, with a future Mars mission lurking as a remote possibility. Taxpayers are likely to ask an obvious question about a moonshot: Didn't we already do that?

Apollo 11 was something of a stunt, a flags-and-footprints mission in which science got short shrift. But what a stunt! Craig Nelson's new book, "Rocket Men," captures the drama and chaos of July 1969 and the almost unbearable tension of the moon landing. When reporters knocked on astronaut spouse Joan Aldrin's door and started pelting her with inane questions soon after the Eagle set down on the Sea of Tranquillity, she screamed at them: "Listen! Aren't you all excited? They did it! They did it!"

Yeah: They did it, and they did it with smarts, pluck and -- against all odds in a technogeek culture -- style. Space flight requires exquisite planning as well as improvisation. Apollo 11 represented that in the extreme. Years in the making, with a supporting cast of tens of thousands, the mission ultimately depended on Neil Armstrong flying the lunar module over a boulder field with only seconds of fuel to spare. Nelson describes the landing so vividly that the engrossed reader isn't sure that Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin are going to make it.

Nelson places Apollo 11 in a broader narrative of American engineering genius. Our society, he argues, does not adequately appreciate the technological feats that make our culture possible: "the big pipes, the vast roads, the power grids, the dams, and the people-and-cargo-carrying vehicles of heroic engineering and big science." He writes:

"Before the 1990s' Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with their Red Bulls, boxed pizza, and Cheetos, there were the short-sleeved-white-shirted denizens of Houston's NASA with pocket protectors, Mexican takeout, evaporating hot-plate coffee, and ashtrays choked in smoldering cigarette butts, and before them were New York and New Mexico's Manhattan Project brain trust of alpha engineers in their fedoras and soft, floppy jackets."

Everyone knew that spaceflight was dangerous, but, even so, the public was never told of the internal fears and uncertainties at NASA. Consider, for example, Apollo 8. It may have been an even more daring mission than the lunar landing. It was only the third flight of the giant Saturn V rocket, and the first with human beings in a capsule on top. NASA decided not only to launch a crew into orbit on the Saturn V but to send them all the way to the moon, a quarter-million miles away. It came close to a suicide mission. Someone overheard a NASA official wondering, before the launch, "Just how do we tell Susan Borman, 'Frank is stranded in orbit around the moon'?"

In many cases the astronauts struggled to communicate exactly what it was like, being out there in space. They spoke in jargon and acronyms. They stuck to the engineering tasks at hand. The can-do attitude is so embedded in the space-cowboy psyche that it's almost impossible for the astronauts to admit that the whole thing is shot through with uncertainty, doubt, fear, occasional despair, a little bit of grief and a lot of night sweats.

Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 crewman, said that if someone asked him during a spaceflight how he felt about something, he'd answer, "What? Huh? I don't know how I feel about that, you want the temperature, you want the pressure, you want the velocity, you want the altitude, what do you mean, how do I feel about that?"

Armstrong was a particularly taciturn figure. He nearly died in a training exercise shortly before the Apollo 11 mission -- he had to eject and parachute to safety as his module training craft exploded -- then calmly returned to his office and said nothing about it. No, he didn't have ice water in his veins -- his pulse hit 156 as he struggled to find a safe place to land the lunar module -- but he was extraordinarily reserved and remains to this day something of an enigma.

Which makes Buzz Aldrin the most compelling Apollo figure: His new memoir, "Magnificent Desolation," describes how he was debilitated by depression and alcoholism soon after he returned from the moon.

Aldrin plays down the significance of being second rather than first, but Nelson notes that when he got home he had to look at a commemorative stamp showing the "First Man on the Moon" -- one guy! As though stepping onto the moon 20 minutes after Armstrong made him a rounding error. Another tidbit from Nelson: There are no good photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon. Aldrin, um, kind of forgot to take any. So the most iconic shots of a spaceman on the moon were taken by Armstrong and show Aldrin.

Nelson has a dim view of NASA's achievements since Apollo, particularly compared with that initial burst of technological brilliance in which rockets went from weapons to spaceships:

"A mere twenty-five years from guided missile to man on the Moon, and then . . . nothing."

Which is too harsh, by far. Raise your hand if you watched the astronauts fix the Hubble telescope this spring. It was space flight at its finest. The shuttle, derided as a mere space truck, never quite got its due (indeed, it can perform many feats that the next generation of spacecraft couldn't possibly achieve). But even if he's a bit dyspeptic about current space programs, Nelson is surely correct in the main: We've never matched Apollo 11.

There will be more marvelous achievements in space, but it's not clear how many of them will be by flesh-and-blood creatures, or by Americans. The Augustine committee members, busy as they are figuring out our destiny in space, should bone up on Apollo 11. It was a bit like Babe Ruth pointing to a spot in the distant bleachers before belting a home run to that exact location. But it was also great engineering and dazzling human bravado. And it was the kind of thing that great nations do.

achenbachj@washpost.com

Joel Achenbach, a staff writer on The Post's national desk, writes frequently about space. He blogs at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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