Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Apollo 11

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 5 “Spider” and Part 6 “Mare Tranquilitatis”

The fifth episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon is about the development of the Lunar Module and its first flight with astronauts, Apollo 9. The episode is narrated by Grumman engineer Tom Kelly (played by Matt Craven), who led the Long Island-based team that developed the lunar lander. In the episode, Kelly directs the development of the Lunar Module from initial concept to its first successful test in Earth orbit.

This was always one of my favorite episodes of the series, and it holds up well. While most episodes of the show are astronaut-centric, this one is not. Tom Kelly and his engineering team are the main characters, and the astronauts don’t even appear until halfway through the episode. Many of the episodes of the show are based on Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, but this one is not. It isn’t clear to me what the main source of the episode actually is, as Tom Kelly’s own memoir (Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module) didn’t appear until a couple of years after this episode was made.

This is the highest-rated episode of the show on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking it. What’s so good about it? One factor is certainly that it puts the engineers front-and-center in the narrative. People who like space and like to watch space shows tend to be STEM-types, and they appreciate seeing people like them on screen.

A memorable scene in the episode is a montage about designing the lunar module. The Grumman design team starts with a scale model of the basic NASA concept, and over the course of the scene they refine it into a practical design by reducing the legs from five to four, changing the window design, changing the hatch design, and replacing the heat-shielding with mylar insulation. It’s a scene about engineering, but it’s also about creativity and the creative process in general. As Kermit the Frog says, everybody needs creativity, not just people in obviously creative professions. When I was studying engineering in college (and watching my From the Earth to the Moon DVDs), I needed creativity to tackle problems in my classes and projects. But now as a historian, I still need creativity just as much. I need it for thinking historically while analyzing sources, for figuring out how to present information and arguments in professional writing or blog posts, and for deciding how to teach facts and concepts to undergraduate students. I think this is the fundamental reason why the episode resonates with so many people.

In Part 6, the series finally makes it to the surface of the moon with the Apollo 11 landing. The episode is structured around the coverage of the landing by fictional news anchor Emmett Seaborn of NTC News. A previously-recorded interview with the astronauts is intercut with flashback scenes of the training and preparation for the flight. A couple of these flashbacks are great scenes, including Neil Armstrong crashing the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (something he did in real life). The episode then shifts to the lunar landing itself, culminating with Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the lunar surface.

There are some strange directorial decisions in the episode. For example, the launch of Apollo 11 is shown in jump cuts, and the final seconds of the countdown are ticking off while the astronauts are still in the van driving to the pad. Also, the found-footage camera work in the interview of the astronauts is jerky and distracting. On the whole, though, this is a solid episode. The filmmakers were able to add real human drama to an event that is familiar and has an ending that everybody knows. (Spoiler: They landed safely on the moon, then came home.)

The Lunar Module of New Delhi

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

In one corner of the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi, there is a something a little surprising: a life-size Apollo Lunar Module, the spacecraft that Neil Armstrong and eleven other American astronauts used to land on the moon six times from 1969 to 1972. The replica is nicely proportioned and seems to be complete in its major details, although the paint scheme (white with a little black trim) seems to reflect an earlier design iteration of the craft, before gold-colored foil insulation was added on the descent stage. The IAF Museum LM looks fairly like an Airfix 1/72-scale plastic model kit that has been blown up to life-size. It even has a white-suited astronaut at the bottom of the ladder, ready to step onto the surface of the moon.

What in the world is a Lunar Module doing in New Delhi?

In 1969, Apollo 11, the first moon-landing mission, received worldwide news coverage. At a time when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams—because of the Cold War struggle between superpowers, proxy wars, and widespread youth protests—Apollo 11 provided a rare moment of unity for humankind. Interest in Apollo 11 was as strong in India as anywhere, as the mission received front-page coverage in national newspapers.

The US government was eager to capitalize on this rare flood of positive coverage. On July 14, just two days before the launch of Apollo 11, the US Information Service (USIS) opened an exhibition in New Delhi about the moon landing. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a purpose-built full-scale model of the Lunar Module—the replica that now stands in the IAF Museum.

The USIS Lunar Module was also on hand in Bombay three months later when the crew of Apollo 11 passed through the city on their round-the-world goodwill tour on behalf of President Richard Nixon. The model was displayed to the public on Azad Maidan until a month after the astronauts’ visit. According to the Times of India: “The 23-foot model rests on a simulated moonscape. With flickering lights and a swinging antenna, the model is exact in every exterior detail. It was built by Indian craftsmen in New Delhi.”

Judging from a photo printed with another Times of India article, the model has changed little since 1969. The astronaut perched at the bottom of the ladder even seems to the same. The only discernible difference is that the flag and words “UNITED STATES” on the descent stage have for some reason been removed.

The Lunar Module at the IAF Museum is a relic of a time when the world was briefly united because of an American accomplishment, and the US government was ready to take advantage of the occasion.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

NASA poster of the Apollo moon missions

Apollo 11 and the past of space travel

Fifty years ago this month, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 has gotten a lot of publicity, more than I remember the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries getting. There seem to be two dominant ways that companies and institutions are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. One is marketing collectibles. Estes, the model rocket manufacturer, has reissued classic kits of rockets from Mercury to Apollo. LEGO has released large and detailed sets of the Saturn V and Lunar Module.

The other dominant way to commemorate Apollo 11 has been to use the anniversary as an occasion to discuss the future of space travel. The cover of National Geographic this month declares, “A new era of space travel is here,” and USA Today last week carried the headline: “Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 made the world a bigger place. NASA is ready to go back.”

In some respects, this preoccupation with the future is understandable because space travel has long been imagined as futuristic. Spaceflight was envisioned in science fiction long before it became a reality. Even after people had begun to fly into space, true believers in space travel continued to dream big and kept claiming that the next big thing was just around the corner: inexpensive access to low Earth orbit with reusable spaceplanes, permanent moon bases, and nuclear rockets flying to Mars and beyond.

None of these things have come to pass. The Space Shuttle, though reusable, proved to be expensive to maintain and risky to fly. Moon bases have never been built, and nuclear rocket propulsion remains science fiction. (In a May 25, 1961 speech, just after famously calling for the United States to commit to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy exhorted Congress to appropriate funds to accelerate the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket—but who remembers that?)

There is a real irony about the future-looking coverage of the moon landing anniversary: space travel belongs to the past as much as to the future. Both National Geographic and USA Today put photos of the Apollo program on their covers, to introduce their articles about the future of space travel. The graphic designers at National Geographic even went so far as to frame the Apollo 8 earthrise photo they used with film sprocket holes—further emphasizing Apollo program’s belonging to the past, because the vast majority of photography in the 2010s is shot digitally rather than on film.

It was literally a half-century ago that men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We can certainly look forward to further human exploits in space (although considering that we still have no moonbases and nuclear rockets, I won’t hold my breath). But an imaginary future in space should not distract us from the real past. Apollo 11 flew a long time ago, taking off from and landing on a world that was very different than it is today.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

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