16 July 2009

One Small Step...

10:56:20PM 7/20/69 CBS News 1970

This is a weighty, large, almost square-format book bound in moody black boards with an extraordinary dustjacket that is embossed with crater-like depressions. There is a small colour photograph stuck on it that is a TV screen-shot of an astronaut standing clumsily in full cosmic regalia next to an unruffled stars and stripes. The title is printed in black along the spine of the dustjacket. It is also impressed into the texture of the black boards so that it gleams into legibility when the book is tilted to the light. It is a mysteriously precise title that echoes the truncated chatter of Mission Control during the launch of Apollo 11. It describes - literally - the moment that a human first set foot on another planet.

First thing on a random opening is a page of the italicised text that represents transcripts of broadcast interviews and commentary. The participants here are discussing the significance of the previous day's lunar landing and they include a theologian, a psychiatrist and the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. They are anchored by someone you'd always want in a debate who is denoted simply by the name 'Reasoner'. This was Harry Reasoner who was famous as the co-host of the influential (and still running) news show 60 Minutes. And it's Reasoner who has the stand-out thought on this page when he says, presumably in reponse to some concern of the theologian, that "when we got there we found no tablets of Moses, or anything. We left a tablet signed by pesident Nixon". The transcript must be slightly less than verbatim as it doesn't spell out any spluttering or outright belly laughs at this point from the other speakers.

Leafthrough. Among the many mind-boggling features of the Apollo missions is the sheer organisation that went into them. Like great cathedrals and blockbuster movies, they were the outcomes of a million details. The CBS coverage of the occasion went to the very limits of broadcasting technology at the time and was similarly reliant on everyone from the tea boy to the star anchor man doing their bit. Leafing through, it's clear that this is, in its own way, an organisational triumph. It's less a book than a publishing project. Organised along the chronology of the event itself, it is really well designed and beautifully laid out. It's a very fine thing.

The front bits. Opening the book reveals that the inner flap of the embossed dustjacket reaches back inside the front board almost as far as the spine. After a free end paper that is made of black card is a page that simply states that the dustjacket represents areas of the lunar surface, including the Sea of Tranquility, where the astronauts walked. There follows a double-page spread on high-quality grey cartridge stock with a diagram of the route taken by Apollo 11 on its way to the moon. (Any instinct to check the equivalent pages at the back of the book is rewarded with a very similar diagram showing the route home.) And then there is the magnificently sparse title page with the figures, dots and letters sitting in dense black type above a subtitle in smaller, softer, italicised script - The historic conquest of the moon as reported to the American people by CBS News over the CBS Television Network. There's a restrained gravitas and understated pride about the thing that is really quite impressive. You can almost hear the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey rising to a crescendo as the pages turn.

Looking into it. It often takes an anniversary to remind us how blase we can become about extraordinary events. 40 years on from that one small step, I'm glibly sitting at home rattling out my thoughts about this and that on a 7-year old machine that I bought from an ordinary shop. It packs the kind of computing punch that I imagine, back in 1969, would have required a couple of high school gyms housing rows of cabinets stuffed with reel-to-reel tape machines attended by people in lab coats. But those people were no fools and the technology they were witnessing in action would have seemed to them every bit as miraculous as nanobots or the human genome do to us.

If by some hiatus in the order of things an iPhone had landed in Harry Reasoner's lap that day he would probably have turned it over in his hands and said something like, "it's the future, but not as I imagined it". The future for many in the post-war generations of the 50s and 60s, as they followed the epic tussle between Soyuz and Apollo, was on a grand scale. They would destroy the Earth under a mushroom cloud or they would take a shiny rocket and go and live on the stars. They might even do both.

Partly because it tells the story of how the story was told, rather than simply telling the story itself, this book has a real immediacy. In mixing a detailed and absorbing account of the mechanics and logistics of getting the event broadcast to America and the world with lots of transcripts of on-air dialogue, it re-generates the excitement, emotion and vital philosophical conjecture that ran through the whole event.

CBS had placed reporters all over the world, from Disneyland to Vietnam, who filed reaction and comment back to New York and Florida. As a television spectacle, the moon mission was as drawn out as a test match with long periods where nothing much was happening. And though this inevitably led to quite a bit of waffle and hyperbole from those reporters, there was also quite a bit of pondering on the meaning of what America was doing. The reporter in Disneyland was moved to the sentimental observation after the launch that the gaudy little tin rockets on the roundabouts were taking the children further in their imaginations than Buzz Aldrin and his crew could ever hope to go in Apollo 11. Another worried that, once printed by human boot, the moon would be stripped of nearly all its mystery and romance.

In some ways, the coverage could be seen as a way of America showing off and milking the applause while sticking its middle finger up at Brezhnev. But there was an acknowledgement of Russian achievements - Walter Cronkite reported that medals commemorating Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin were to be left on the moon, and an attempt to broadcast a dialogue between an American and a Soviet scientist from a Polar base was only cut short by a crackling disintegration of the signal.

Nor was any attempt made to hide or belittle the many dissenting voices. Although civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, who led a march of his Poor People's Campaign to the launch site, told a reporter that he found the spectacle awe inspiring, he insisted that the money could have been better spent fighting poverty. Similar concerns were aired by Gloria Steinem in an interview with Cronkite, and in New York a mobile reporter was told by revellers at a soul festival that the money should have been spent in Harlem.

In fact, the debate about priorities was a constant motif throughout the coverage and CBS would not have got away with ignoring it. Apollo 11 was the culmination of a space project that had gobbled up public funds faster than a failing bank. The debate over whether it was worth it had been slugged out over the previous couple of years by politicians and writers, including Kurt Vonnegut who, only months before the launch, had written a magazine article laying into Arthur C. Clarke's almost unequivocal support for the programme. They were brought together to discuss their views during the coverage and, from the extracts in the book, it's a pretty even contest.

For Clarke, the Apollo mission was 'a down payment on the future of mankind'. In the years since 1969, plenty of further instalments have been paid and we've had Hubble and the Space Station to show for it. The economic roller-coaster and other claims on our attention (climate change looming into the picture for one) have meant that Vice President Agnew's confident insistence at the time of the moon landing that we would have set foot on Mars by the end of his century has proved way wide of the mark.

We may have become jaded with the moon landing and all its imagery, consigning it to the know-nothing past for its blurred pictures, retro fashions and the clunky monitors at Mission Control. But what those astronauts actually did still takes some imagining. If it were happening right now, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one sending a text along the lines of "OMG - they're wlkng around on the mn ffs".

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