The Moon’s a Balloon. That’s the title the British actor David Niven gave his best-selling 1972 memoir, lifting a phrase from an e.e. cummings verse in which the poet asked, “who knows if the moon’s/a balloon, coming out of a keen city/in the sky — filled with pretty people?”
In art, literature, and the popular imagination, the Earth’s natural satellite has been seen in many ways — as the home of the Man in the Moon (a fabled character who has lent his name to innumerable stories, songs and movies), a big ball of cheese, a symbol of the maternal and the feminine (or, in some cultures, of the masculine), and the Queen of the Night.
The moon’s gravitational force controls the Earth’s ocean tides; some romantics would argue that its potent charms play a magical role in many a successful seduction, too. And then there are all those howling wolves; hooting owls; moonlight-detecting, sperm- and egg-releasing corals; vampires; and other creatures whose nocturnal movements and mischief are indelibly linked to the moon’s enduring allure.
Now, The Moon 1968-1972 (T. Adler Books), an attractive new book containing photos from NASA’s Apollo Program, which 47 years ago landed the first men on the moon, evokes the rich mixture of emotion, yearning and speculation that have long surrounded Earth’s mysterious companion and neighbor.
Appearing on the eve of a presidential election that finds fascists clawing at the White House’s gates, this slim, elegant volume also serves as a bittersweet reminder of a time when, despite the tensions of the Cold War — and, in part, thanks to the motivations they engendered — Americans still dared to dream big, sharing a collective spirit of awe over the historic achievements of an innovative, ambitious, tax-supported space program. (Nowadays, by contrast, as the country’s physical infrastructure crumbles, some Americans prefer to dream of building a wall to stop an assumed tide of Mexican immigrants, an imagined threat whose actual, current net measurement is zero. So much for thinking big.)
NASA’s Apollo Program began in 1961 with various launch tests, which led to a mission designated “AS-201.” It took place five years later and involved the first flight test of the Saturn 1B rocket and the first orbital test of an operational command/service module. The first test of the Saturn V rocket, which served as the launch vehicle for the Apollo moon missions, took place in November 1967 and was designated “Apollo 4.” The Earth-orbiting Apollo 7 mission (October 1968) sent back the first live, publicly broadcast television images from a manned spacecraft. Apollo 8 (December 1968), which made ten lunar orbits, became the first manned flight to the moon but it did not land any humans on its surface.
The Moon 1968-1972 focuses on the latter period of the Apollo Program, which ended with Apollo 17 in December 1972, and included six missions that landed men on the moon and successfully brought them back to Earth. The book contains several dozen photos that were shot by Apollo Program astronauts from their command/service modules and on the surface of the moon, along with a brief introduction by publisher Tom Adler, a paragraph from The New Yorker by E.B. White in response to the first-ever moon landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969, which was piloted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and a very brief excerpt from the transcript of communications between the crew members of the Apollo 12 mission of November 1969, the second trip to deliver two men to the moon’s surface.
Perhaps inevitably, we humans had to follow our fantasies — and instincts — and devise a way to actually journey to the moon. After all, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Ancient Egyptians called their moon god a “traveler” in recognition of his regular trajectory across the night sky. In his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne wrote about gun enthusiasts who created a gigantic cannon to shoot a projectile containing three men into outer space, with the goal of landing them on the moon.
Modern China’s space agency, with a nod to old myths, named its lunar-exploration program after the centuries-old moon goddess Chang’e, whose Earth-bound lover made offerings of fruit and cake in her honor after she took up eternal residence in the heavens. But it was U.S. President John F. Kennedy who, in a speech delivered at Rice University in Houston in September 1962, threw down the gauntlet regarding moon exploration. He spoke in concrete terms, with a sense of purpose; most significantly, he proposed a specific timeframe for landing a man on the moon, which NASA accomplished in record time.
History buffs will recall that, more than a year before Kennedy’s speech, the Soviet Union had sent Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft, into orbit around the Earth. So it was with propagandistic intent before some 40,000 spectators at Rice, who were keenly aware of the accelerating “space race” between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., that Kennedy referred to outer space and famously declared:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained […] But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? […]We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Kennedy added that the challenge to send humans to the moon was one Americans were “willing to accept” and “one we intend to win.”
Setting aside the sense of scientific competition, not to mention political-militaristic rivalry, that provided the broader context for Kennedy’s boldly articulated challenge, the scope and complexity of the Apollo Program and what it actually achieved were truly — to use (accurately) one of today’s most abused words — awesome. Viewed in retrospect, what Apollo’s developers were able to do with what now seems like the primitive technology of the late 1960s seems to dwarf all achievements since.
Speaking by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C., Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian said, “Given the time constraints, NASA scientists had to work with existing technology, but the agency did contract out parts of the Apollo Program’s development to institutions like MIT.” To put the program’s technological infrastructure in perspective, an often-cited comparison puts the computing power of today’s average smartphone at hundreds or even thousands of times greater (depending on which components are being measured) than that of Apollo Program’s main guidance computer.
Stepping back from an analysis of the funding and science — and politics — that shaped the Apollo Program, I asked NASA’s chief historian to weigh in more expansively on its accomplishments and legacy. In a written exchange, Barry, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, replied, “There were many scientific results from the Apollo moon-landing program; it revolutionized our understanding of the moon (and, for that matter, of the formation of the Earth, as well).”
He cited a page from NASA’s website, which lists ten of the most important scientific discoveries that were made during the Apollo missions. Among them: the fact that the moon and Earth are genetically related and formed from different proportions of a common reservoir of materials; confirmation that the moon is lifeless and home to no living organisms, fossils, or native organic compounds; and recognition that the moon’s surface is covered by rock fragments and dust known as the “lunar regolith,” whose four-billion-year, solar-radiation history provides valuable clues to understanding climate changes on Earth.
As for the Apollo Program’s legacy, Barry noted, “It demonstrated both the technological and economic virtuosity of the United States and the pre-eminence of the Western capitalist political system over the Soviet communist model. When Apollo was undertaken in 1961, this was a serious discussion, despite the fact that, with 2016 hindsight, we now know that the communist system was unsustainable. Apollo was not only successful in completing the political goal for which it was created but it was a triumph of management in meeting an incredibly complex goal.” America’s moon-exploration program, Barry added, “also changed humanity’s view of our home planet,” for “[s]eeing our fragile blue planet suspended in space had a broad impact on our view of ourselves that few other images have [ever] achieved.”
In his introduction to The Moon 1968-1972, Tom Adler, the book’s publisher, explains that the Apollo astronauts’ photo equipment included “specially designed, 70mm Hasselblad cameras,” twelve of which were left behind on the moon by the time Apollo 17, the program’s last mission, returned to Earth in December 1972. They were abandoned there to make room in the spacecraft for the lunar rocks and specimens the astronauts brought home with them. “Prior to their missions,” Adler writes, they had all “trained extensively with the sophisticated Hasselblads, taking hundreds of photographs in challenging real and simulated settings in order to familiarize themselves with the technology. They were even encouraged to take the cameras on family trips.”
Nowadays, with popular and official attention focused on Mars, and with the stunning photos that spacecraft like NASA’s Juno probe, which entered into orbit around Jupiter this past July, are sending back to Earth from ever-farther reaches of the solar system, it may be hard to imagine the excitement that surrounded the exploration of the moon nearly a half-century ago. NASA’s Bill Barry told me, “President Obama and the U.S. Congress have directed NASA to enable a human Mars expedition. There [will be] a lot of steps along the way, including operations in the vicinity of the moon, but the U.S. does not currently plan to build a lander to put our astronauts back on the surface of the moon. If other nations or companies do develop such a system, NASA may well collaborate with them to put U.S. astronauts back on the moon again in coming decades, but this is not a priority.”
Nevertheless, to hold Adler’s album of historic lunar photographs, savor their clarity and the unmistakable strangeness of their subjects, and feel the sense of wonder such images inevitably provoke is to be reminded, in a bracing way, of the mystery of life itself and of one’s place in something unfathomably grand, unnameable and vitally interconnected.
There’s a phrase that describes such an exhilarating sensation.
It’s called “over the moon.”
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