‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… in apprehension how like a God!’
Tonight I had ‘a moment’; a moment that took me away from a material world encumbered in scandal, conspiracy, greed and indifference; to an awe inspiring era where astral aspirations became the living dreams of inspirational heroes.
For All Mankind is an 80-minute movie compiled entirely of NASA footage documenting the 12 American astronauts’ endeavors to the moon; from Apollo 11’s first historic landing on 20th July 1969 to the final moon mission of Apollo 17 on 11 December 1972. Between them, these men spent 170 hours on the moon covering over 60 miles, planting six flags, and bringing home 880 pounds of soil and rock, and over 30,000 photographs.
This seminal footage features thoughtful and reflective quotes from the astronauts who undertook these adventures. The soundtrack is Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo’ album. An Ending (Ascent) is one of the most ethereal pieces of ambient music I have ever heard; haunting and majestic. This dreamy combination of sound and vision is so clear and vivid that I could easily believe that I was there. During my moment, I was there.
‘You get sweaty palms and your heart starts pounding. It was like the big game was about to start’, says a voice, as a trio of astronauts are being secured in their space suits and composing themselves for the big show. There is trepidation and tension in the air. In the background is a large poster with a smiley face; ‘have a nice day’. One of the crew is lying down with a towel covering his visor; blanking-out his surroundings.
They receive the call to proceed to the spacecraft and make their way up the slow, endless elevator to the top gantry. A breathtaking view awaits; the low sun is casting an imposing shadow of the space craft across the desert; the crew are merely small black dots next to this behemoth spacecraft. ‘I just stood around and waited until they strapped in. There was a kind of a strange quiet. You look out and you can see the large part of the state, and ocean, and this… this thing… out here. You have the feeling that it’s alive’.
Countdown commences, ‘It won’t fail because of me…’ The rocket blasts off, travelling at seven miles per second. ‘It feels just like it sounds… There’s a moment, a spring release, a complete release of tensions. To feel all that power being precisely directed… At last, I’m leaving the earth; I’m destined for the moon’.
Soon Apollo is in earth orbit. The crew unbuckle their straps and experience the zero G, ‘I was getting the impression that this was such an amazing thing, that I’m going to forget these things. I’m going to lose this image and it’s going to be quickly replaced by another’.
We see images of the earth below. ‘In Africa there are a lot of Nomads out in the desert. You see the fires from all of these… you realise the broad areas that you’re looking at. Each of those little dots represents people – other humans out there in the environment that I would consider stranger that the environment they might think about, here’.
One of the crew members prepares to go EVA. ‘There are no boundaries to what you’re seeing. It’s like having a gold fish bowl over your head, which gives you unlimited visibility… It’s as if you’re out there without anything on’. He is floating over the earth; it looks so peaceful and majestic. ‘There’s a total and complete silence in that beautiful view; and the realization, of course, that you’re going 25,000 miles an hour… You are a representative of humanity at that point in history; having that experience, in a sense, for the rest of mankind’.
He receives instruction for mission control to return to the craft. Preparation begins for the three-day journey to the moon. They will reach speeds of 6000 feet per second; faster than any human being has traveled before. There is nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the interstellar ride.
The crew have a portable cassette player. ‘Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…’ Ground control appears to be caught up in the moment too. There is a playful atmosphere as the crew perform to the camera; filming zero-G antics and mealtime preparation. ‘ You’ve got to stick it somewhere so it doesn’t float away’.
What goes in must come out, eventually; ‘For the feces was a bag. You put this bag in the right position and you go, but the only thing is that nothing goes to the bottom of the bag… Everything floats!’.
Television pictures begin beaming across the globe, showing the people on earth a unique view of their home from space. ‘What I keep imagining is that I’m some lonely traveler from another planet. Would I land on the blue or the brown part of the earth?’
‘When you’re out there in this little command module you see the risk you’re taking because you realise that if the glass breaks or the computer stops working you’re not going to get back. You have time to contemplate this, you have time to think about it and you have time to run it through your mind different times.’
The lunar bound crew play the music from Arthur C. Clarke’s2001: A Space Odyssey. All of a sudden the music and pictures abruptly cut out and alarms start sounding. ‘OK Huston, we got a problem here… We had everything drop out’. An oxygen pump is venting vital supplies into space. Huston and the crew frantically collaborate to fix the issue in a chaotic and frightening period that must have felt like forever.
A solution is found and normality is restored; the mission resumes. This was a bitter taste of how quickly things can go wrong; how fragile they are in space. It is hard to believe that the complex on-board computers of the Apollo craft are no more powerful than the mobile phones from the 1990’s.
‘One of the things about a lunar trip is that you don’t pass anything on the way… That lack of way points has the effect of making it magical and mystical…’ Apollo is approaching the moon, bound for the dark side; it looms, foreboding and hostile. Appearing below the large prominent moonscape is the small, insignificant looking earth.
‘It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.’
Two of the three men prepare for the decent to the surface in the lunar module. One of the crew will remain in the command module. The countdown to separation commences, ‘I wanna go with them so bad I could taste it’. The lunar module departs. ‘You’ll never know how big this thing gets when there’s nobody in here but one guy’. The lunar module drifts away leaving the sole crew mate to contemplate; ‘I wish the damn thing could hold three people!’
The big moment arrives. This is what the mission is about – the culmination of billions of dollars to cover millions of miles. There is an initial sinking feeling of not recognising any of the landscape; a feeling of being lost. As the craft gets closer to the surface, its shadow is visible in the distance, growing as the module closes. They soon touch down. ‘The eagle has landed’.
I watched the images that I have seen countless times; Armstrong climbing down the ladder to take those first steps. Buzz Aldrin, who had bet five hundred dollars that no one would remember the words of the second man to touch down on the moon, says, ‘That may have been a small step for Neil but it was a long one for me’.
‘The moon is essentially grey; no colour. It looks like plaster of Paris; like dirty beach sand with lots of footprints in it – bland in colour, but majestically beautiful’. Caught in a moment if their own, hopping, skipping and jumping on the lunar tundra, the two astronauts engage in a sing-song ‘I was strolling on the moon one day, in the merry, merry month of May…’ They were human after all. ‘We were the only two there… we felt an unseen love… we were not alone’.
If I were religious, I would be thinking I was witnessing all of Gods creation; the carrying out of God’s work. I am fortunate not to have such a sterilised perspective. Caught in the moment, I am feeling what it is like to be a mortal man away from his natural element. I feel the fear, anxiety, excitement, awe and disbelief.
I feel alive on a dead, lifeless landscape; an eerie charcoal expanse where grains of dust have remained untouched for billions of years. Above me is the cold, endless skyline of space. Visible on the horizon is the living, breathing pale blue dot; mother earth.
I feel an impossible longing to witness the pure beauty and tranquillity of moon for myself; to see the earth through my own eyes; to put into perspective our place in the universe – how small and insignificant we really are. One thing is certain, humankind is far from being the centre of this intimidating universe.
‘Tranquillity base… you are cleared for take-off’. In my moment, I experience the feeling of leaving behind the lunar peace and tranquillity; bound for disorder and chaos ‘That’s our home. That’s where we lived; explored the mountains and the valleys… You leave it with the same feeling and awe that you left the earth with’.
In appearance, the moon is grey and baron. On the surface, however, the moon has an indescribable emotional presence. ‘Man did not reach out and touch the moon by the grace of God, but by harnessing the vision and integrity that has driven our species for millions of years, and will continue to drive us to the stars and beyond’.
‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won. And they must be won, and used for the progress of all mankind’