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Apollo – the anniversary approaches…

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing is fast approaching, and “Apollo” is everywhere. The BBC is planning a series of programmes about it on BBC2, bookshop “popular science” shelves are already groaning under the weight of Apollo-related titles, and almost every day I receive an email from Amazon offering me a “too good to miss” deal on another new Apollo book. Newspapers are already running retrospective pieces on the mission, and all the major science magazines and journals are beginning to get in on the act too.

Several themes are emerging by now. 1) Wasn’t Apollo brilliant! It was Mankind’s greatest achievement! Hooray for us! 2) Wasn’t it an absolute crime how we didn’t build on the legacy and achievements of Apollo instead of abandoning the Moon? 3) Will NASA’s ambitious plans to Return To The Moon end up being abandoned and gutted when the Obama-ordered Review reports back?

For what it’s worth, my feelings on these themes are:

1. Yes, it was magnificent! Apollo changed history – at least for a while. And through Apollo we briefly glimpsed Mankind’s true potential.

2. Yes, it was a crime, and one for which I think we will be judged harshly in the future. Just think of the world we’d be living in now if NASA hadn’t been forced to run away from the Moon and had been allowed to stay there. We would definitely, absolutely, 1000% certainly have had a proper Moonbas eby now and an outpost taking shape on Mars. We might even be preparing to mount the first manned missions to the moons of Jupiter, looking for potential landing sites on Europa and Ganymede with MRO-type spacecraftin orbit around them. Hell, we might even have been enjoying daily downloads from a Europa Rover, drooling over raw images of the moon’s cracked surface…

3. I genuinely doubt Constellation is going to survive unscathed. There will be blood. Although I don’t think it will be cancelled outright – it’s already come too far and had too much spent on it – I think the best NASA can hope for is to be ordered to unwrap Constellation and “try again”. There’s just something not right about it, and no real passion – internally or externally – for the program.

… but anyway, the anniversary looms, and you can almost hear the internet begging for mercy every time the word “Apollo” gets tapped into Google, and the search brings up a gazillion blogs, tweets and news stories. Just last week the BBC News ran a story focussing on Neil Armstrong’s famous first words spoken on the Moon. yes, you guessed it, the old faithful “Did Armstrong fluff his lines?”. The BBC had found an audio analyst boffiny type guy who had reviewed the audio transmissions from the Moon and concluded that Armstrong had indeed messed up his line, and hadn’t said “… smallstep for A man” as he has always insisted he did. It doesn’t really matter, of course, it’s History now, and next year around this time there’ll no doubt be another analyst claiming he or she has proof that Armstrong DID say “a”, so the story will still be running when the 50th Apollo anniversary comes around…

But the other day another Apollo story caught my eye. On the popular space website collectSPACE there was a story titled “Face to face with the First Man“, which was celebrating the unveiling of a “new” image of Neil Armstrong taken on the Moon. When I read the piece it turned out to be a review of a new book called “Voices from the Moon”…


The book is the latest space-related title from renowned Apollo- and space historian Andrew Chaikin. And if that name sounds familiar to you it’s probably because you have a copy of this book on your shelf…


“A MAN ON THE MOON” is the book considered by many space enthusiasts and experts to be THE definitive account of the Apollo missions, and was the inspiration – and bible – for Tom Hanks’ ambitious and epic HBO series “From The Earth To The Moon”. If you’re reading this blog you’ve probably got a copy of the book on your own bookshelves. It’s almost a legal requirement for anyone with even a passing interest in “space” to own a copy! 🙂

As part of his research for that landmark book, Chaikin went back through NASA’s Apollo archives, and amongst that treasure trove of geeky goodies he found footage of Armstrong working on the Moon – and was delighted to see some film showing Armstrong’s face clearly visible through his spacesuit helmet.

Now, as any space enthusiast knows, there are a shockingly-small number of Apollo 11 pictures actually showing Armstrong on the Moon. Why? Well, there are a number of different theories: some suggest it was simple bad planning by NASA, that they didn’t set aside time in the every-minute-planned-in-advance mission schedule for pictures specifically of Armstrong to be taken. Others think it was a deliberate snub to Armstrong by Buzz Aldrin, who was so p’d off with not being the first man on the Moon he didn’t take many photographs of him for history’s sake, as some form of revenge. The truth is probably a mixed up combination of the two, but the fact remains – there are only a couple of photos, at best, which definitely show Armstrong working on the Moon.

A couple of years ago – actually I think it was on collectSPACE too – someone created a ” new” image of Armstrong standing on the Moon, by enlarging and enhancing his reflection in Buzz Aldrin’s visor as Aldrin posed for this famous portrait on the Moon…


D’oh! It’s an obvious thing to do isn’t it? Here’s what I got when I did the same thing… it’s nowhere near as good as the one the guy produced, but you get the idea, especially if you click on the image to bring up the full size version…

arm helmet

So, there he is, Neil Armstrong on the Moon. But what’s missing? That’s right – his face. We only know that IS Armstrong because we know the astronaut in the picture is Aldrin. There’s a picture showing Buzz Aldrin’s face, this one…


But Armstrong? Nope, nothing. Until data miner extraordinaire Andrew Chaikin came up with this, which he has now put in his new book…


Wow… look at that… let’s zoom in on the face in the helmet…


Yep, that’s undoubtedly Armstrong. (Thanks, by the way, to Andrew Chaikin for giving me permission to reproduce the photo here on Cumbrian Sky. Photo (c) NASA/Andrew Chaikin)

Is this important? I think it is, yes. We have, for the first time, a clear picture showing the First Man On The Moon actually ON the Moon – not suiting-up before launch, or posing for the cover of Time, or preparing to leave the LEM, but actually standing on the Moon. It’s not the photo we should have of course, an official, carefully-planned and posed portrait of Armstrong standing on the Moon… something like this…

arm portrait

This won’t happen next time, of course. NASA and the rest of the world’s space agencies are much more media savvy and aware of the importance of commemorating historic events appropriately, so whichever agency lands the first astronaut on Mars I’m sure some time will be set aside on the busy EVA 1 timeline to take some decent pictures of the first man or woman on the Red Planet.

But back to the present Apollo feeding frenzy. As a long time fan of Andrew Chaikin’s writing – his recent book “A Passion For Mars” is a great read, obviously written by a genuine “space nut”, someone who, like me, is drawn to, inspired by and excited about the Red Planet – I was very excited to read about his new Apollo book, and seeing the new Armstrong picture in that collectSPACE story made me even more impatient to get a copy, and to learn the story behind the book, too.  So I cheekily emailed Andy, with a few questions, and he has been good enough to answer them!

“VOICES FROM THE MOON” – another Apollo book! You can’t stop writing them, can you! 🙂 What moved you to write this new title?

I’ve had this treasure trove of interviews with the Apollo astronauts, and have long wondered how I might continue to make good use of them. When I started seeing the beautiful new scans of Apollo photography that have come out in recent years, I began to think that the images might be a good vehicle for a book featuring quotes from those interviews. I actually had the idea for the book back in 2003, but it took until now to make it happen.

This book features some rarely seen – and, I understand, completely new – images. Can you tell CS readers a little about them?

What has happened in the past several years is that high-definition scans of the astronauts’ photographs have become available from NASA, at a size of 4,000×4,000 pixels. That allowed me to zoom in on the most interesting portions of the image, to see details that were not readily apparent before. It turns even a picture we’ve seen many times before into a seemingly new image. Also, in combing through the archives while preparing the book, my wife Victoria Kohl and I came across some images that I had never seen in print before. One example is the photograph of the moon in Earthshine, backlit by the solar corona, that was taken by the Apollo 11 astronauts as they approached the moon. Another is the photo of the moon’s darkened horizon, with the glow of the solar corona and star trails in the blackness of space, as photographed by Apollo 17 command module pilot Ron Evans in lunar orbit. And as I say, even an often-seen image like the one of Charlie Duke standing next to the Rover on Apollo 16 became almost a new picture because I could zoom in on him and still retain sharpness.

The “new” image of Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon, his face visible, is stunning. What’s the story behind that?

This is one of several images I obtained from new high-definition scans of the motion picture films shot during the missions. You’ll find several examples of these in the book, but the one of Armstrong is my favorite. I had discovered in 1986, during my research for A Man on the Moon, that Armstrong had his gold visor raised while he was collecting the first sample of lunar dust and rocks, known as the Contingency Sample. You could even see his face inside his helmet. But it wasn’t until recently that I obtained a high-def scan of that film, from Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films, who in turn got it from NASA. I was able to get several frame grabs from that sequence, and the one that I felt was best is the one in the book. It’s quite satisfying, after all these years, to finally have  good photograph of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon.

I get the impression that, like me, you find pictures of the Apollo astronauts with their faces visible fascinating. I know why I do, but what about you? Why do they affect you so much?

I think it’s the desire to connect with the human being inside the spacesuit. I love the way the astronauts look with the gold visor down, no doubt about it. But with the visor up, when you can actually see their faces, it adds a human dimension.

As this Apollo 40th anniversary approaches, what are your feelings? Are you one of tho se people happy to solely celebrate the drama and achievements of Apollo, or are you – like me – frustrated that we turned our backs on Apollo, and the Moon, and today are another decade, at least, from going back..?

I have long ago realized that Apollo was something of a historical fluke, that the conditions that gave rise to Apollo were unique to the Cold War era and that we can’t expect them to come again. I have focused my energies on advocating for exploration for its own sake — not because of any political gain that might come from achievements in space, but because we are an exploring species, and we are at our best when we are working together to accomplish seemingly impossible things, to go places where no one has ever been and see what no one has ever seen. Apollo will always stand as the first chapter in our endless journey into space, but it remains to be seen how and when we will take the next steps. I only hope we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that exploration is some kind of luxury — nothing could be further from the truth.

– Thanks to Andy for answering those questions, and again for giving me permission to use the photo! 🙂

So, here we are, just a month or so away from the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. How are you planning to celebrate it?