LIFE IS ABOUT EXPERIENCES. The more we accumulate, the more we shove into that store cupboard at the back of our brain, ready for retrieval at some future date. In 1969 I was sixteen years old, sitting my GCE ‘O’ Levels and itching to know more about the world out there. Or even beyond. The Americans had run a spectacular event on TV at Christmas by sending three astronauts to encircle the Moon, and I’d been so fixated by the experience that I’d ordered copies of four colour posters through a Sunday newspaper. On my bedroom wall were images of the giant Saturn V rocket blasting off from Cape Kennedy, the inside of the Command Module for Apollo 8, the capsule just after splashdown in the Pacific – and that famous ‘Earthrise’ taken above the surface of the Moon. I was an official space-nerd (although no-one used that terminology at the time).
By the end of June my exams were behind me, and in the first week of July I added another experience to my brain-cupboard: I helped out at the Open Golf Tournament at Royal Lytham, and saw Tony Jacklin achieve a historic victory in front of a home crowd. I had manned the scoreboard at the 18th hole and had a perfect viewpoint, proudly sharing it with Tony’s Dad. The summer holidays stretched ahead, but best of all: Man was about to fly to the Moon. And this time, he was going to land.
The Apollo 8 mission had me glued to our black and white set, watching Cliff Michelmore, James Burke and Patrick Moore in the BBC studio while they acted as intermediaries (or even interpreters) for those like me in the UK who didn’t really understand about CSM’s, pitch angles or burn reports. They used little models to demonstrate the actual activities of the spacecraft so far away, and in July they were at it again. By this time my own plastic model of a Saturn V rocket stood proudly on my bedroom dressing table.
When Apollo 11 blasted off on the Wednesday morning in Florida, it was half past two in the afternoon in the UK, and by the time Armstrong and Aldrin were preparing to descend to the Moon’s surface it was Sunday evening. Not a lot else on TV. Who’d want to watch it, anyway? Both ITV and BBC abandoned their normal schedules, so all three channels (yeah, just three!) were devoted to some aspect of the moon mission. But there was a problem ahead.
Normal TV switched off around midnight as there were legal restrictions at that time affecting the number of broadcasting hours. Hard to believe today, but in the fifties and sixties only religious programmes could be broadcast between 6 and 7 on Sunday evenings. That didn’t affect Apollo, but when James Burke announced that Armstrong wouldn’t be taking that famous first step until the early hours, it was a huge relief to hear that television coverage would continue later into the night.
Okay, so I’m sixteen years old, there’s no school tomorrow and I’m not a stroppy teenager. My Mum is all Apollo’d out by the time we watch the landing at 9.18pm GMT, so she goes off to bed and I make myself about as comfortable as I can between two armchairs in our front room. I set an alarm clock for 2am, ready for the continued TV coverage, and doze fitfully after taking a peek through the window at the live situation in the night sky. Nothing much to see.
My first all-nighter. I am both excited and sleepy. How is that possible? Determined to witness the Event of the Century, I have my Dad’s twin lens reflex camera at the ready, having listened avidly to the man on the telly who tells us the best setting to use to get a decent image off the flickering screen. I’ve got to do this. Something to show the grandkids. I was there!
The TV coverage goes on for over an hour – mainly re-runs of the landing and studio discussion with the Sky at Night man, eccentric but endearing Patrick Moore. The EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) is slightly later than expected, but all is well, and at 3.51am GMT Armstrong is at the top of his ladder and I am poised with my camera. Oh, if only they’d invented video recorders before this.
‘That’s one small step’ says Armstrong, and I’m in bits. History is being made, and I’m among the few million in the world hanging onto his every word, his every first footsteps. The grainy soil of this foreign world he’s walking on looks every bit as grainy on my TV set but I couldn’t care less. These images are coming live from the surface of the moon, a quarter of a million miles away. How good is that?
I probably doze off again at some point in the next three hours, but I’m there when Neil and Buzz read the commemorative plaque that will remain after they leave. I hear the telephone conversation with President Nixon in the White House, and I see the Stars and Stripes raised on the Moon. Does this make it American territory? James Burke says not. I hope he’s right.
It is something of a relief when the extra-terrestrial pioneers hop back into their tiny temporary home to get some rest, and so do I as the transmission comes to an end. Was it worth the discomfort of a sleepless night? Certainly. Because I was there.
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(I don’t just write fiction.