As the 40th anniversary of humankind's first step on the moon approaches, the reminiscences will fly from all those who watched the historic moment. But only two dozen people can tell you what it's like to come face-to-face with the moon. A new book from Viking Studio,
by Andrew Chaikin and Victoria Kohl, tells the story of the Apollo program's bold ambitions through quotes from the 24 men who have reached the moon's orbit.
Chaikin spent years interviewing the Apollo astronauts, including Frank Borman, who commanded the first Apollo mission to circle the moon. Said Borman: "It was an exploratory mission. We took the human intellect and the human vision, the human mind, 240,000 miles away from its home base. That was the importance."
Borman led his crew around the moon in 1968, a tense year back on Earth, characterized by war, assassinations, and protests. The Apollo 8 astronaut says he initially resisted bringing a TV camera on the voyage, but later saw the benefits. "Once we got there and saw the moon, I recognized this was extremely the right thing to do. Because the moon was so desolate," said Borman. "I think the moon resembled what the Earth must've looked like before there was life. Or what it could look like after an all-out nuclear war. So that was sobering."
For Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, the truly emotional moment came when the lunar module touched down. "That was human contact with the moon, the landing," he told Chaikin. "It was at the time when we landed that we were there, we were in the lunar environment, the lunar gravity. That, in my view was the... emotional high. And the business of getting down the ladder to me was much less significant."
In this photo, Alan Shepard takes his first steps on the moon's Fra Mauro highlands during the 1971 Apollo 14 mission, and scans the lunar horizon. While Shepard is most remembered for hitting a golf ball on the moon, he also helped collect almost 100 pounds of moon rocks, and conducted several seismic experiments to investigate the region's "moonquakes." Shepard says the public tends to forget that it was "a hell of a good flight. Someone says, 'Oh yeah, you were the third to land on the moon--but didn't you play golf up there?' I probably should've known that was going to happen."
The moonwalkers of Apollo 14 were the first to sleep in the lunar module, although astronaut Ed Mitchell says it was hardly a restful night. NASA had decided that the astronauts would sleep in their spacesuits, removing only their helmets and gloves, so they wouldn't waste time or risk damaging the suits. But sleeping in the bulky suits was so uncomfortable that NASA subsequently changed the policy.
Mitchell also says the lunar module's perch gave him pause. "We were very concerned about the angle that the LM was on." We got up and looked out the window three or four times during the night, to make sure we were still upright and hadn't turned over."
The lunar rover, nicknamed the moon buggy, was used on the final three Apollo missions. Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 remembers rover drives as an adventure, despite a top speed of 8 miles per hour. "We were always running the car at full throttle, trying to make the most of our time on the moon," he said. "And what was out ahead of us was a little uncertain. Many times we'd come up over a hill and there'd be a crater, and Dave [Scott] would have to throw the controls hard in one direction, and we'd go up on two wheels." Every time we hit a rock or a bump, we'd just fly into space. So I estimate we were floating through space a good bit of the time."
All of the astronauts who landed on the moon were trained in geology, and Apollo 17's geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt was the only professional scientist to land on the moon. Schmitt said the novel environment hardly affected his work: "It doesn't make any difference whether you're in a suit or whether you're in shirtsleeves. You're still going through the same mental process." Your mind is not in a spacesuit."
In this image, Charlie Duke collects samples from a boulder; his cuff checklist lists the tasks and timeline for the moonwalk. Duke's Apollo 16 mission returned with rocks that proved the moon's highlands had been shaped more by meteorite impacts than ancient volcanoes.
While two astronauts from each landing mission descended to the moon's surface, one had to remain above in the orbiting command module. But Ken Mattingly of Apollo 16 says that didn't bother him one bit. "I can't imagine bouncing across the surface of the moon being as personally exhilarating as being solo in a spacecraft on the back side of the moon." You turn some music on, and you watch this panorama go by, and it's absolutely mind-boggling." I mean, it's just one sight after another that is just absolutely extraordinary. And you're all by yourself! Just you! In this tin can!"
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon on a July night 40 years ago, an estimated 500 million people around the world were watching. Aldrin told Chaikin that he briefly thought of all those people glued to their TV screens. "It was the same irony that caused me to think, pause, and just inwardly chuckle, just momentarily, that, God, here are two guys further away from home ... than two guys had ever been, but there are more people watching us than anybody else has ever watched two people before in history," he said.
But for all that the Apollo astronauts saw and did on the moon, it was their home planet that shocked them with its beauty. Bill Anders of Apollo 8 says the first Earthrise he saw nearly knocked him off his feet. "Because we were being trained to go to the moon... We were trained to get there. So, getting there was the big event." It wasn't 'going to the moon and looking back at the Earth.' I never even thought about that! In lunar orbit, it occurred to me that, here we are, all the way up there at the moon, and we're studying this thing, and it's really the Earth as seen from the moon that's the most interesting aspect of this flight."