Memories of the Apollo II Moon landing

One thing, I think, that isn’t always made completely clear by TV documentaries about the Apollo II mission is the universal (for want of a better term) interest in the event.

Forget blockbuster box sets, World Cup championships and celebrity scandals: the Moon landing had absolutely everyone glued to their TVs and radios. In my student flat in Blackheath, south east London, I remember that my four or five co-habitants, with assorted partners, were furnished with more than adequate amounts of beer and I seem to recall large amounts of curry being involved too. Everyone had followed the mission closely, right from the weeks preceding the launch itself to the take-off, transit and subsequent manoeuverings to arrive at the situation where the Lunar Excursion Module undocked from the Command Module and began its descent.

The best part of the media coverage was hearing Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins communicating directly with Houston – and then on to our TV set! We’d followed the previous Apollo missions too, of course, but this was so much more dangerous and historic. Everyone feared that there would be a disaster. People’s hearts were in their mouths at the more dramatic moments. It was like living through some fantasy novel – but it was really (like, really) happening. Although the transmissions were crackly, we could make out most of what was being said.

We soon recognised the pattern of the data that was being referred to, as the astronauts reported back and NASA controllers responded with instructions, reminders and acknowledgements.

In the last few minutes of the LEM’s descent towards the lunar surface, more of a hush grew in our room, apart from the occasional “What did he say?” or “300 feet …” blurted out by one of my friends. There were two or three instances where communications were briefly lost and we looked round at each other, fearing that the worst had happened. We also heard references to ‘alarms’. Plates of curry were left untouched.

For me and many others, something that put a dampener on proceedings here in the UK was the intrusive commentary provided by the BBC. They were simply unable to recognise that their constant chipping-in with ‘helpful’ snippets of technical explanations was detrimental to the coverage. Sometimes, less is more. Even the silences were interesting. James Burke, lead commentator with famous astronomer Patrick Moore at the time, was on the radio just yesterday, and referred to the way that “Patrick” had an amazing ability to fill in the silences, however long they were. I would say that that wasn’t always necessary, certainly not to the extent that they did it; but more to the point they both often talked over the communications between the astronauts and NASA. They got the balance very wrong.

These unnecessary intrusions were repeated often in subsequent missions and on into the Shuttle program. Eventually, both the BBC and other channels giving live coverage got the message and started to give viewers the option of a plain, direct transmission of the conversations. But I’m sure this lesson will have been forgotten by the time manned missions to Mars get under way (assuming a US mission is first).

Suddenly we were down to two-figure heights … One of the girls in the room began to suggest that it was all a waste of money which could have been spent on feeding the poor in Africa. In terms of timing, this was a less-than-apposite moment to make such political statements, whether she had a point or not (which maybe she did) and she was instantly shouted down.

The actual moment of touchdown was somewhat confusing. “The Eagle has landed” sounds pretty clear, but … that would mean that they were safe. Which was clearly impossible.

Then a slow, dawning realisation that yes, they’d made it.

Wows! were exclaimed, along with a goodly measure of expletives. Cans were cracked open, cold curries were wolfed down and sighs of relief were breathed. Wall-to-wall BBC commentary resumed, blocking out the post-landing exchanges between the crew, the Command Module and the NASA base.

And we had all experienced one of the most exciting moments of our lives.

 

 

 

 

Video credit: Stephen Slater; image credit: NASA, public domain

 

 

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Filed under History, Science, space and astronomy

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