Looking back it was a nuts idea, to attempt to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back safely, as JFK declared on 25 May 1961. And even more incredible that the Americans actually achieved it, on schedule in July 1969 while engaged in a costly war in Vietnam and Cambodia. But when the Soviet Union laid down the challenge by launching Yuri Gagarin into space on the jolly ship Sputnik, the Americans had to think of something they could achieve first. Nasa’s rocket programme was nowhere near ready to launch manned flights into space, and so it was out of desperation rather than from calculation that President Kennedy’s advisers came up with the idea of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back again. They reckoned this was so far beyond the imagination of the Soviets they would never dream of attempting it.
It was quite a coup for Radio Four’s Archive Hour on Saturday night to get Buzz Aldrin who, with Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon on that Apollo 11 mission, to guide us through a recreation of those nail-biting moments when the lunar module, with only seconds of fuel left in its tanks, glided down towards its soft landing on the moon’s powdery grey surface. That such an extraordinary feat should now appear so far in the past is weird.
You might think that a radio programme about it would disappoint. Surely we need to see those miraculous pictures of a truly spherical earth hanging in space? Or Armstrong and Aldrin walking about on what some conspiracy theorists have claimed to be the Nevada desert? But hearing again those conversations between mission control in Houston and the astronauts relived the craziness, the sheer madness of the venture.
‘Good luck to all of you,’ says the controller, just seconds before Operation Moon Landing began, conveying nothing of the tension of the moment. No one had any idea whether the lunar module could in fact land safely on the moon, let alone power itself back up again to the command module in slow orbit round the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin could have been left to freeze there for ever, lost in space. The operating capacity of the computers they were using was only 32K, less than a digital watch today.
During the week, the novelist Jeanette Winterson gave us the first of ten short meditations reflecting on what effect the moon landings have had on our perception of the heavens. Curiously, the moon has lost none of its aura. The Inconstant Moon (Radio Four, Monday to Friday) celebrated the mystical moon, the magical moon, the lunatic moon — and the moon beloved of poets, slowly rising through the trees, and, writes Alice Oswald, ‘shedding a weak low-battery light so that everything, even the stones, looks up’. Winterson also reminded us laconically that Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ down the ladder, 239,000 miles from home, was an extremely expensive one — $25 billion.
The Woman’s Hour Drama this week set out to capture the life experiences of a young woman with learning disabilities. At first The Pursuits of Darleen Fyles appeared crudely written, but it gradually drew me in, partly because Darleen is herself played by a young actress with learning disabilities. Donna Lavin gives emotional authenticity to Darleen’s confusions, which you begin to realise have been cleverly scripted by Esther Wilson so that you enter into Darleen’s world and see beyond the limitations of her speech. How should Darleen’s mother and the family of her boyfriend, who also has learning difficulties, deal with the fallout of encouraging them both to live independently?