I don’t think I’ll ever read enough books about the Apollo program. And I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of Michael Collins’s book until after he passed; it’s called Carrying the Fire and was initially published in 1974 — less than five years after his trip to the moon. I remember thinking it started slow for the first few pages, but then Collins’s personality shines through (he hates hippies — just like me!), and this might now be one of my all-time favorite books.
Being so recent after Apollo 11, he really gets into the nitty-gritty of all the engineering challenges of getting to the moon, which is the content I love. I also finally realized part of what made the moon landing so amazing: it’s basically steampunk.
You know steampunk: People using cogs and steam power to make like robots and stuff, i.e., using tech for things far beyond what it should be capable. And that was the moon landing. They were using 1960s technology to land on another planet, and it just shouldn’t have been possible. I mean, they were trying to sim things using 1960s computers — that shouldn’t have worked (and, according to Michael Collins, a lot of the time, it didn’t). They had to use a sextant to sight things via stars for navigation and had ground control just call up to them numbers to enter into the computer. Just reading about it, it’s so primitive it’s unbelievable. I kept thinking, “Just give a Raspberry Pi, and I could replace most of this.”
But they did it. And it’s just unbelievable more things didn’t go wrong. I mean, there’s no analog to landing on the moon; they had to make so many assumptions because they were doing something no one had ever done using equipment no one ever used before. And no one could be certain it was going to work until they tried it for real. If I had to guess, I would have thought they’d have more tragedies like Apollo 1; it’s almost unfathomable that the worst thing that happened in space was Apollo 13. But, despite the rushed schedule to get to the moon, they did everything they could to do it right, constantly training with all the engineers trying to anticipate absolutely everything that could go wrong and have a manual ready for it. It’s a fantastic story of people working at their absolute peak in courage and ingenuity to do the impossible.
Anywho, as I was saying, the Michael Collins book is neat because it’s so soon after the fact. And also pre-PC. I mean, I don’t have a problem with trying to be nice, but a big problem with PC is no one ever says what they’re thinking anymore because you need to be more careful than that. Like when he’s part of a group selecting new astronauts, he noticed among the finalists were “no blacks and no women.” He thought not having any African Americans wasn’t great, and they should have tried to recruit better there, but he was pleased there were no women. I mean, the urination system was all designed around everyone having a penis; they didn’t have time to redesign that while trying to beat the Russians to the moon.
But even so soon after the moon landing, I could really sense a lot of resignation from Collins. There was talk of getting to Mars by the end of the century, but it seemed like he already knew that wasn’t going to happen. He could see the huge drop in interest for the Apollo launches after 11, as people didn’t see the moon landing as a beginning for humanity so much as the end of a race. And what do you follow up landing on the moon with? Apparently, that’s a question that nearly destroyed Buzz Aldrin. And as a country, I don’t think we ever came up with a good answer to it.
I was born in 1979. I’m of the first generation where the moon landing was something that already happened — the most complicated feat imaginable already over. We just assumed we’d go to Mars soon enough, but there was no rush. It wasn’t like we ever thought we couldn’t do it; when you’ve gone to the moon, Mars is just a difference of degree, not kind. Landing on it will never be anywhere as amazing as first landing on the moon because Mars is inevitable, even if we keep putting it off.
And this feels like part of the problem society has today: We have no more big challenges left — especially after our big enemy, the Soviet Union — the guys who we raced to space — collapsed. We constantly complain about how terrible things are, but we have wealth, freedom, and technology that puts the world at our fingertips. What we don’t have, though, is a worthy challenge. And it’s hard to imagine one that could really stretch us to our limits like landing on the moon. So instead, we take petty problems and inflate them, like Superman pretending his archnemesis is some random drug dealer.
So, Neil Armstrong ruined everything. When he put his foot on the surface of the moon, it was all downhill from there. After being given everything and told nothing is impossible, the only challenge left is learning to be happy with that.