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How to talk to astronauts

Two podcasts and a Radio Four drama series about the Apollo landings make them seem even more amazing than they did at the time

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

Television has the pictures but the most spine-tingling moments in the recordings from the Apollo space missions are the bursts of crackling conversation between the spacecraft and mission control. Never a word wasted, absolute precision and the most surprising clarity even when there are only seconds to spare before total disaster is averted. The wonderful documentary on BBC2 last week gave us those awe-inspiring shots of the Earth emerging from the dark side of the moon, taken by Buzz Aldrin from the Eagle, but it was the World Service’s podcast, 13 Minutes to the Moon, that made real just how incredible those 13 minutes were, when the Apollo 11 lunar module was blasted off from the command module and made its way down to the surface of the moon.

The big selling point of this no-expense-spared podcast (produced by Andrew Luck- Baker) was Hans Zimmer’s special score (if you don’t know Zimmer’s work, he’s been composing music for blockbuster films and TV since the 1980s, including Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Blue Planet). But it was completely over the top, drowned out impact-wise (if not decibel-wise) by the extraordinary nature of the story and the sense of immediacy in the archive material from Nasa. (Interestingly, the BBC2 documentary eschewed a lavish score, instead using a muted electronic soundtrack that perfectly matched the eerily stark images.) Those voices speaking out with perfect precision, communicating so fast through space, were thrilling enough.

The luxury of the podcast format, though, did mean that there was time (ten episodes of approximately 45 minutes each) to go into the detail of how those space missions were accomplished, and how in just ten years the American team went from sending up chimpanzees in rockets to that moment when Neil Armstrong gingerly stepped off the ladder and on to the dusty, bleak surface of the moon. We discover, for instance, that when mission control realises just how little fuel is left on the lunar module (because it had veered off course soon after leaving the command module), the flight controller, Bob Carlton, is keen to ensure that the right words are used when communicating with Neil Armstrong. He tells his staff not to say ‘critical’. It could be easily misinterpreted. ‘This is no place for added emphasis.’ There are only 60 seconds of fuel left in the tank; the computer is malfunctioning because it’s overloaded with tasks and needs rebooting. All non-essential tasks, such as the visual display, have to be shut down so that the computer can concentrate on getting Eagle to the moon. There’s no other way of checking what’s going on. Yet not a trace of tension can be heard in any of the voices; no emotion. Their focus and commitment is total.


Looking back on what happened 50 years ago has been a real learning curve. Were we really that optimistic then? That focused? At the time, as a truculent teenager, I recall being less than enthusiastic about the amount of money spent on the space project and what seemed then to be a foolhardy attempt to master the universe. Listening in on all the archive recordings reveals the selflessness, the teamwork, the sheer audacity.

Space Race, Audible’s ten-part podcast, takes us on a different journey — from Mike Pence’s declaration that Trump’s administration is committed to getting American astronauts back to the moon in five years, to the 1950s and the beginning of the American space program. We discover that 13 women were also recruited as part of the Mercury team, including ‘Wally’ Funk who proved her credentials by spending ten hours and 35 minutes in the isolation tank, far longer than anyone else. But the Americans were always playing catch-up and it was the Soviet Union that first launched a woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. Funk and co. had by then been taken off the Mercury mission because no one wanted to see a woman die in space.

Again, Space Race has been given a Hollywood makeover with an extravagant soundtrack that seems out of key with the downbeat approach of those working on the project, all of whom are fired up by the idea of space travel yet who never betray panic at moments of crisis, coolly working out what to do to resolve the problem. They display none of that overblown emotion suggested by the soundscape. But the interweaving of archive material and interviews with those who were at Nasa at the time (including Funk) tells an impressive story.

Moon on Radio 4 (directed by James Robinson) was a much shorter but no less detailed narrative of the Apollo story. Anita Sullivan’s 15-minute drama series, based on the original transcripts, focused on the experience of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins in Apollo 11 over those eight days in July 1969. Narrated by Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the ebullient presenter of The Sky at Night, this was stuffed full of facts yet remained dramatic because of the story. ‘We’re very comfortable,’ says Armstrong after the initial rocket thrust into the Earth’s atmosphere. Yet within an hour he’s having to hand-copy on to a pad lists of numbers needed for the next meticulous operation, the translunar injection burn. If anything, it seems more amazing now than it did at the time.


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