Reflections from Apollo at 50: Part 1 – Isolation

Michael Collins, piloting the lunar orbiter Columbia was, for a short time at least, the most isolated human in the universe. He orbited far from the Eagle, the spider like lander which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were piloting to the surface. Farther still from the earth, to which he remained intermittently connected through a long and fragile chain of communication [1], and the lonely tenure of gravity. Utterly alone, on the dark side of the moon.

Apollo Lander

July 20th, 1969, was the culmination of a journey measured in magnitudes: of money, of complexity, of risk: an archetypal pyramid project, with Armstrong’s small step balanced on the pinnacle, but with over 400,000 others, and decades of innovation, an almost inconceivable mass of experience, standing beneath.

Strange things happen in space: you get very little return for a great deal of effort or, more accurately, it takes a very great deal of energy to direct a very small lander to the Sea of Tranquility. To achieve this effort, Apollo 11 was not one spacecraft, but rather many, stacked one atop the other: an assemblage of technologies, each of which would loft the Eagle one step closer to the magnificent desolation of the moon [2], or drag it one step back, towards the distant Earth.

The ‘First’, ‘Second’, and ‘Third’ stages are the ones most familiar, as they are the ones seen discarded, and falling back to earth, but on top of them sat the ‘Lunar Module’, the ‘Service Module’, and the ‘Command Module’, each, in it’s own right, powered and self contained. And it was not one rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral, but many: whilst the whole ‘stack’ is called the Saturn V, there were five ‘F-1’ engines, mechanisms of demonic power, five ‘J-2’ engines, and further, smaller, engines, some of which were designed for multiple use during the flight, right down to the tiny thrusters to control pitch and yaw, or to direct discarded stages away from the main stack. In all, over eighty of them.

This complexity involves a dance, or rather, several dances: the Lunar Module, Command Module, and Service Module, each separating, and re-engaging, multiple times, because the order in which they were stacked was not the order in which they were used: a TETRIS puzzle of incredible complexity, carried out whilst hurtling along at over 11km/second, that’s almost twenty five thousand miles per hour. Which sounds dramatic, until we remember that speed is relative: with both vessels travelling at that speed, the dance appears slow and stately, from the relative position of each observer: a fact that belies the truth that the astronauts still maintain the record for the fastest speed attained by a human.

Only two of the three Apollo astronauts would land on the moon: Collins remained behind in his lonely orbit, piloting the Command Module/Service Module mashup (those two mated modules forming ‘Columbia’), whilst the Eagle, which had flown, protected between the first three stages, and the final two, could depart and start it’s dangerous descent.

The Eagle detached with the push of a button by Collins in the Command Module: a final Earthly act, pitching it to the moon, like the most expensive baseball in history. With that push came a change of perspective: “I think you’ve got a fine looking machine, there, Eagle”, said Collins, as Armstrong jockeyed the lander into a stable position, flying alongside [3], “despite the fact that you’re upside down”. “Somebody’s upside down” retorted Armstrong, revealing a truism of perspective: it’s always measured from our own.

In space, there is no true ‘up’, except that which we choose to adopt, meaning that a spacecraft can make use of all interior surfaces with impudent abandon, or at least it can until the time comes to land, or it gets too near to another source of gravity. When separated though, Eagle and Columbia manoeuvred, and in doing so, gave each other a relative position of upside-down-ness.

It may seem trivial, but relative position is important, something that Oliver Morton [4] explores in his fascinating exposition on the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo, arguably the most famous (and certainly one of the most significant) photos in history. It’s the one that shows the vibrant ‘blue marble’ rising over that magnificent dereliction. Except that it didn’t used to.

When first presented to the press, it was positioned with the moon’s surface as a wall on the right, and the earth suspended in space on the left (a framing that Morton reminds us was parodied by George Lucas when he had the Death Star drift into view around the planet Yavin nine years later). It was only when it landed on the cover of Time magazine that it took the more familiar Earthrise posture (possibly shadowing the framing used by Kubrick in ‘2001: a space odyssey’, a year earlier). An interesting intertwining of cultural drivers, with cinema both responding to, and shaping, the dominant narrative. We all believe that we stand on top of the earth: none of us ‘feeling’ that we are on the side.

So there stands Collins: orbiting the moon, alone, whilst Armstrong and Aldrin kick up the dust (dust which would permeate every crevice of the Lander with it’s glassy consistency, and gunpowder smell as it reacted with the oxygen inside), at the end of his daisy chain. The most isolated man that there has ever been.

Reflections

The Apollo programme was a statement of national power and pride, but the ultimate expression of it was validated by a single man, thrown from the earth by thunder, hung upon a gossamer thread.

Impact is not always about thunder, but sometimes about fragility.

One lens through which to view this is that of perspective: from the Earth, Collins was almost forgotten, outshone by the men on the moon. For Collins, his ‘world’ shifted to his craft, and his companions on the moon which, by size, dominated his view. Earth evolved to a marble: this is a legacy of Apollo, that our atmosphere is made visible in the vastness of space. It’s fragility exposed.

But sometimes that which is closest dominates our view.

Whilst the Eagle and Columbia moved only a few metres apart, their perspectives flipped, to the point where one was upside down. How often does this happen, even in terrestrial divergence?

It does not take much distance to create an uncrossable divide.

Notes

[1] Collins saw space flight as a ‘long and fragile daisy chain of events’. (Chaikin, 1994, p.189). All the early astronauts were pragmatists, raised through war, the Test Pilot mindset (where death was a frequent flier), and where salvation came through preparedness, detail, and possibly luck. It’s interesting to note that whilst all were defined by technology, some turned to faith and art as a response to what they experienced.

[2] Whilst Armstrong’s ‘One small step’ statement is the one immortalised, as the words to describe the end of a journey, Aldrin’s words, ‘Magnificent desolation’, more accurately describes where that journey took them. (Aldrin, 2009, p.34)

[3] In Chaikin, p.189

[4] Morton’s book provides a delightful perspective from both scientific, and aesthetic, viewpoints, rather rambling from mythology, to gravity, and back again, it’s a really neat reflective addition to the literature. As a side note, i read it as my first book whilst on paternity, so consumed it in two page ‘moments’ snatched alongside my gently snoring, or wildly screaming, son.

Bibliography and further reading

Chaikin, Andrew (1994): ‘A man on the moon: the voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Penguin, London.

Aldrin, Buzz (2009): ‘Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon. Bloomsbury, London.

Riles, Christopher, and Dolling, Phil (2009): ‘NASA Mission AS506, Apollo 11, 1969 (including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5), Owners’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Woods, David (2016): ‘NASA Saturn V, 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 to Apollo 17 & Skylab), Owner’ Workshop Manual’. Haynes, Somerset.

Morton, Oliver (2019): ‘The Moon’. Profile Books, London.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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6 Responses to Reflections from Apollo at 50: Part 1 – Isolation

  1. Pingback: Leadership Reflections from Apollo at 50: Part 2 – Storytelling | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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