16/31: In the Shadow of the Moon, or "A Teeny Oral History of Communally Experiencing the Space Program, Courtesy of My Parents"
I never get tired of the stories of the Apollo missions. Apollo 13, of course, is one of those poppy-fields movies that I can never not watch, and I think I put In the Shadow of the Moon in my Netflix queue after powering obsessively through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon in three days.
ItSotM is great for moon-shot-history nerds such as myself. The shot of the scoreboard at the baseball game reading "THEYRE ON THE MOON" alone is so exciting, and then the doc mixes in interviews with the astronauts and contemporaneous footage. It's interesting, too, how well the Apollo guys can tell a story; we forget that these guys functionally belonged to America and had to know, or learn, how to deal with the press and the citizenry, and to take that responsibility on in terms of "selling" the program. So in that way, it's not a surprise that a guy like Charlie Duke is so charming and warm, with his hickory accent. (There's a bit over the end credits where some of the astronauts address the persistent conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked, and Duke says, I can see how maybe people believe we'd fake the thing once, "but whah would we fake it nahn tahms?")
It's also not really a surprise that you have a couple of pompous blowhards in the mix. "I never understand why people who haven't been on rockets ask, 'Were you scared?' Of course we weren't scared!" Well, Buzz Aldrin, I know you must get sick of answering the same questions over and over, but since, as you say, we have not been on rockets, and do not get on rockets for a living, most of us, maybe you could forgive us for 1) remembering that Gus Grissom et al. died horribly on top of one, and 2) thinking that's kind of frightening.
If you enjoyed either of the fictional Apollo films I mentioned, you'd probably like this; the score can get a bit intrusive at times, but it's a well-paced overview, and it gets in your head a little bit. Well, it got in mine. I kept wondering, what was it like for civilians to watch this happen on television? Was it on "the wire," that conversational groupthink that can sometimes happen in a city? I was just an egg at the time, so I phoned up my parents to see what the 1969 version of Twitter had done with Apollos 11 and 13. Below, a very tiny oral history of experiencing the moon landing, the Apollo 13 mission, and computers the size of a city block.
MA: We still lived in the city…we went over to a friend's, I think it was on 86th St., or that area. We lived at 85th and 1st at the time. And we went over to a friend's, there were four or five couples, and we all watched it together. But yeah, we watched it, no question.
DAD: It was not like gettin' on the train and two hours later you're at the moon. So they landed on the moon, they didn't have any live coverage of that. And they sat there on the moon for a while, before Neil Armstrong came down the ladder. So I don't know what time of day; I'm guessing actually once it was in orbit, it landed in the afternoon, and it was at night, at least New York time, when they got out.
MA: I wouldn't be surprised if bars were packed. We were probably drinking, but we were at somebody's apartment, instead of at a bar.
DAD: Oh yeah, it was a big deal. Because there had been other flights; there had been the space shot out to the moon, to go around the moon and, you know, sorta like a dry run. And see if they could get the whole thing in orbit, and see, you know, nobody'd ever seen the back of the moon before. The pictures that came back from those flights, they had those, and then there was the, "we're in orbit," and then of course nobody knew what was gonna happen when the LEM, the Lunar Excursion Module [which my father pronounced in Comic-Book Guy voice, hilariously], was detached from the orbiting…space thing, whatever they called it. "Capsule," I guess. But you know, it was a lot of excitement.
MA: I don't think we did high fives yet at that point; I think we all hugged each other, and let out screams, and — you know, it was just awesome, there's no question about it. And now of course it just seems so old hat! But it was very very exciting. As exciting as, you know, a New York team would be in the World Series, and people would go to bars and watch that together. Or I remember when the Knicks won the NBA championship, and I think we were at PJ Somebody's [laughs] on the east side.
DAD: It was certainly on the news, but you gotta remember, in 1969, color television had been around for a while but it was NOT state of the art — matter of fact I think we got our first color telly in 1969 — and we didn't have sort of round-the-clock internet news. Television was pretty rudimentary compared to what we're used to. A 19-inch diagonal screen was big.
Everybody knew this was coming. It was gonna happen. And you know, basically we made these plans — these people, I think the guy's name whose apartment we went to was Jim [redacted]; I don't know how I knew him, I think it was probably the Pennsylvania National Guard, and it was, "Where were you gonna go to watch this?" I'm sure a lot of folks just went out to dinner and then to some saloon to see what they could see on television.
There's no question it was a BIG deal — and nobody was gonna say, you know, "What's this I'm reading in the Times this morning — they actually landed on the moon?" It was definitely something where people were thinking, "No matter what else is going on, I want to watch this; I want to be somewhere where we will watch it." So it wasn't a spur-of-the-moment, "Today's the moon thing, I understand they're up there, why don't I go find a place to watch the guy step down." You were aware it was happening.
[on Apollo 13] It was a cliffhanger! And you know, most people were saying, "Oh man — this is going to be sensationally shitty if they can't figure out a way to get 'em back."
[With Apollo 11,] there was always sort of a marginal — something could go wrong, but essentially, this had been laid out: here's what's gonna happen. You'd see diagrams in the paper about circling the moon, and then at some point they would separate the capsule that was gonna go down, and the guy was still in orbit, keepin' track of stuff…this was, the science was there. Everybody knew sorta what was gonna happen. And I guess there was a…there was no sense of dread, like this is a long shot. There was just the possibility that if something went wrong, that could be seriously bad stuff. I can't remember whether there was a backup plan, i.e. if something goes wrong and they can't get the guys off the surface of the moon, can we send another one up in enough time to get 'em, save 'em. I don't recall that as possible.
Well, there was a sense in Apollo 13 that — you know, it's up in the air. [SDB: "Literally."] "There were going solutions, but it's bad" kinda thing — so nobody knew what would be the denouement, if they couldn't figure out the scheme to get the thing heading back. You know, you had — nobody was gonna say it out loud, it wasn't gonna be a headline like "These Guys Are Toast," but you just said, what if they are stuck, and we have to wait for the inevitable — that they're gonna die, and maybe a year later the thing'll come down in the ocean somewhere.
But it was, as long as they were working on, "Okay, here's the development," and it wasn't dead, we haven't lost communication, the backup batteries haven't quit and it's dead black and we just heard the last — it was not that desperate. But it was clearly a close call.
No question about it. It was front and center. I was at a business lunch, I think, when they splashed down, and it was clear that they were gonna make it back, but it was not clear necessarily how — did they have enough power. They didn't want 'em to land on the side of a mountain going 2000 miles an hour, for instance. So it was definitely a lot of sort of suspense. "Here it comes." And obviously great relief and cheering when it got down. But you know, it was nervous stuff.
Landing on the moon was clearly one of those — you know, Jules Verne, 80 years before, imagined that, but in terms of a practical thing — you know, in 12 years, from Sputnik to landing on the moon, was quite a scientific feat. And subsequent attempts — you know, they weren't routine; they were obviously still a risky enterprise. And then by the time you get up to the space station, and you say, "Jeez, they got six people up there, and" — but nobody's paying attention, suddenly it's become routine. But in terms of landmarks, obviously going to the moon was a very big deal.
There always skeptics — a lot of people saying, this is foolish, it's costing lots of money, especially when we're fighting a war in Vietnam which we can't afford, you know, who cares, but I think most people really did care. It was really exciting stuff. Frontiers of science and all that. To do all those things [after Kennedy called for it] — it was a pretty compressed timeframe. The Sputnik — you know, sending an actual satellite up there that's beeping away, and then sending up one with a dog in it…some of the dogs didn't make it, but that's neither here nor there.
And then men, going around — John Glenn and Alan Shepard and so forth, and you say, jeez, to go from getting a rocket World War II developed, and then getting men in orbit, and then going to the moon, that's a pretty compressed effort.
It was done — in retrospect it was done on the cheap. You know, lots of billions of dollars, but not something which started out with a billion here and there and turned into a trillion. It was done on a fairly economical basis, and it was a lot of science, which we now have to turn into practical solutions, which ain't necessarily easy. You gotta remember, commercial jet planes was an item that was of about the same time. The same time as you're starting to throw Sputnik up there, you still had more people traveling in propeller planes than jets. So it was a period of tremendous exploration in terms of applied science; it was fascinating stuff, and I'd say also culturally. People had been in the, you know, cowboys-and-Indians type of, "What do Americans look like?" And suddenly the favorite toy was not a model railroad; it was some space thing.
The country was in fractured condition while all this was going on.
There was always the thought that it was a very risky enterprise. Yes, they had redundant systems, and they didn't just say, hey, this is a good idea, why don't we send a rocket up and see if we can get lucky and hit the moon. But there was always a sense that this was not a sure thing. It was risk. There was a possibility something could go wrong. And a few things did.
They had mainframe computers. You know, personal computers, the idea that you could have some little thing on your desk that would do a lot of fast calculating was really a creature of the eighties. The idea that you could have smaller things that did so much was a generation away. You had terminals, connected to a mainframe. And you know, the only way you could have that kind of computing power, which in today's terms was "modest," was to have a room with this huge thing, with lots of vacuum tubes and transistors and so forth; there wasn't the idea of a chip the size of your thumbnail.
Right now, you just say, oh yeah, you've got a few of them in all these things, iPhones and iPads and laptops, you got a few of them — that "few of them" would have taken a roomful of running-hot stuff. They hadn't miniaturized it enough. I remember seeing the first transistors that had been invented at Bell Labs, and it was a thing, like two little wires and then sort of a cap on the top; that was one transistor. Now you got a thing the size of your thumbnail that's got a million of 'em, etched on by some process, so it took the brute force of that kind of computer power — in fact, I'm guessing the modules, the spaceships themselves, had far more space consumed by its local computer, miniaturized as much as they could, but still using almost all the available space. And now, if you sent up one, I suspect you'd have far more room for people to actually lie down and take a nap.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Alan Shepard Buzz Aldrin Charlie Duke Gus Grissom In the Shadow of the Moon John F. Kennedy John Glenn movies NASA Neil Armstrong oral histories poppy-fields movies sci-fi the fam