James Walton

Rocket men | 11 July 2019

By telling the story from the perspective of 1969, this BBC2 documentary also added a melancholy note to the thrills

Rocket men | 11 July 2019
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As the title suggests, 8 Days: To the Moon and Back (BBC2, Wednesday) comprehensively disproved the always questionable idea put forward by Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’: that being an astronaut is ‘just [a] job five days a week’. More importantly perhaps, by concentrating purely on how Apollo 11’s lunar voyage unfolded over the eight days in question, without any pesky hindsight or analysis, it stirringly reminded us how uncomplicatedly thrilling the first moon landing was at the time. And also, you couldn’t help noticing, how madly risky. A key piece of equipment throughout the mission appears to have been the seat of the pants. The lunar module itself looked like an oversized version of something made on Blue Peter — presumably accompanied by a warning that children should check with their parents before raiding the family’s tinfoil.

In keeping with current documentary trends, 8 Days didn’t have a narrator. Instead, any background information we needed came from a few minimalist captions whose matter-of-fact tone served only to emphasise how astonishing the facts of the matter were. There were several clips from the American TV coverage of 50 years ago — as sponsored by Kellogg’s (‘Kellogg’s puts more in your morning!’) — where the initial sense of patriotism was touchingly superseded by an awed disbelief at what humanity was achieving. Naturally, too, we saw plenty of footage of shirtsleeved blokes in Houston smoking heavily in front of computer screens.

At the heart of the programme, though, were the audio tapes recorded on Apollo 11, which were then lip-synched by actors playing the astronauts in a rather convincing dramatisation of the entire voyage. The technical talk was, of course, impressively baffling. (Apparently the ‘Rocket Man’ line ‘And all this science, I don’t understand’ was wrong too.) But we heard lots of joshing as well — some of it at the expense of Neil Armstrong, who’d been chosen to take the first lunar steps despite having far less space experience than either Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins. At one point, Armstrong made the mistake of expressing his excitement at seeing a sunrise from space. ‘We got the rookie with us,’ chortled Collins.

In fact, on days two and three, as they headed moonwards, not a great deal happened. The astronauts gamely performed some of the easiest chin-ups of their lives for the TV channels desperate for news. Meanwhile, Nasa kept them up to speed on what was happening on Earth, including John Coyle’s triumph in the world porridge-eating championships in Corby, England.

Once the mission reached lunar orbit, however, things soon took a turn for the hair-raising — although you’d never have known it from the calm way in which the three men continued to talk. ‘You cats take it easy on the lunar surface,’ said Collins by way of farewell to Armstrong and Aldrin as the lunar module began its descent. It then overshot the planned landing site, and, with its fuel running out, Armstrong had to override the onboard computer that was all set to crash them into some boulders. A warning light indicated a ‘1202 alarm’, which they’d never encountered in training and nobody in Houston seemed to recognise. Eventually, after some frantic searching through manuals, Nasa decided it meant merely computer overload — and was therefore nothing to worry about. And with that, the descent continued until the Eagle duly landed. (At times the sheer level of the astronauts’ bravery made you think of Larkin’s line, ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’)

Following what felt like a surprisingly desultory two-hour lunar walk, there was more drama when Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take off — and discovered that the switch operating the lunar module’s engine had snapped off. Nasa’s advice was to get a spot of shut-eye while the Houston scientists worked out if they could override it. (And if there’s ever been a less propitious time to sleep in human history, I can’t immediately think of it.) In the end, Aldrin famously solved the problem himself by fiddling about in the hole with his pen.

But by telling the story from the perspective of 1969, 8 Days also added a melancholy note to the thrills. Nobody we saw went as far as J.G. Ballard did that year when he wrote that, given the now inevitable human colonisation of the galaxy, Neil Armstrong would be the only 20th-century person to be remembered in 50,000 years. Yet, it was clear that nobody involved could ever have imagined that, within just a few decades, the moon landing would end up as the subject for this kind of nostalgic celebration, rather than as a guarantee of a new, less Earthbound future for all of us.