I don’t know where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot, but I can remember where I was at teatime the following day — at home in the east of England, watching the very first episode of Doctor Who. It was the halting, creakily paced beginning of a long, beguiling tumble through time and space that, in the absence of any proper space program of our own, became an eccentric and quintessentially English alternative to Gemini, Apollo, and footsteps on the moon.
Not for the first time, we had sweetened our failure with fantasy. NASA’s Mission Control may have been the acme of American industrial cool, a collection of (Alfred) Sloan Rangers, calm, crew-cut men in white shirts methodically guiding tiny vessels over immense distances, but we had Doctor Who, an almost-perfect embodiment of the chaotic, improvisational genius that Brits like to believe is one of their better national characteristics. The doctor generally appeared to have little control and less interest over where or when his spacecraft might land — but wherever and whenever it was, and whatever the perils he encountered there, he invariably managed to emerge victorious at the end. To be sure, he was an alien from another world, but he was a very British alien, amateurish, surprisingly effective, and clad in vaguely Edwardian clothing, a wistful nod to a lost empire’s last good time.
Yes, the fact that the Union Jack would never preside over some far lunar crater was a disappointment to a nation still proud of its explorers of old, but it was with a certain sardonic, stoic grace that this once-great power came to terms with its role as a space-race spectator and concluded that it performed that role rather well. In addition, the world famous Jodrell Bank Observatory was, Britons told themselves, an essential element in man’s thrust into the unknown, a listening post that provided the Americans with invaluable assistance, not least in eavesdropping on the intriguing Soviet spacecraft that sailed through the heavens. These vehicles were shrouded in mystery and lies, yet were quite capable of delivering a series of spectacular achievements — the first orbit by an artificial satellite, the first man in space, the first space walk, the first successful soft landing of a probe on the moon.
To tell the truth, we were able to take more pleasure in those Soviet triumphs than were our cousins across the Atlantic. Naturally, we were more or less on the side of the Yanks, our allies, “family,” and, don’t say it too loudly, heirs, but we had a touch more room for the idea that the us-versus-them that counted most was man against the dangers of the universe, not man against man. When, in August 1961, four months or so after his pioneering orbit around the Earth, Yuri Gagarin visited the British capital, the London Times sniffed that he had “received a welcome that sometimes bordered on hysteria” (this was before Beatlemania). At just three years old, I was a part of the frenzy. My parents, no stooges of the Kremlin, decided it was “important” that I was taken to stare at the Soviet spaceman. Sadly, I have no memory of this historic event, but I like to believe that it played a part in triggering my lifelong fascination with what might lie out there among the stars, a fascination only partly attributable to my subsequent abduction by aliens (well, you never know), a fascination rocket-powered throughout my boyhood by the way that science fiction and science fact played off each other in that first great age of space exploration, an era that promised, or so it seemed, to make a reality of the wonders already foretold by Asimov, Clarke, and the best of the rest of the paperback seers.
And as the decade progressed, each new program — Gemini, Apollo, Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz — seemed to bring that reality ever closer, especially when it became clear that man was at last on the threshold of a visit to his planet’s nearest neighbor. By the late summer of 1968, the finish line was coming into view. September saw the Soviet Zond 5 become the first vessel to circle the moon and return safely to earth — complete with a cargo of worms, flies, and a turtle or two. America countered with a sharp ratchet-up of the evolutionary scale, dispatching Apollo 7 into orbit in October, the first successful manned Apollo mission.
That, thought NASA, was practice enough. It had to be. Nobody knew what the Soviets might try next. In December, Apollo 8 headed for the moon — and possibly the most magical Christmas since Charles Dickens first published his tale of Ebenezer, ghosts, and redemption. Britain was enthralled. The moon made stars of science correspondents such as the dignified Peter Fairley from ITV (then the UK’s sole private television network) and the boyishly enthusiastic James Burke of the BBC, and gave an extra boost to the career of Patrick Moore, the marvelously oddball host of The Sky at Night, a show the BBC has operated as a vespers for insomniac astronomers since, astonishingly, 1957 — with Patrick, these days Sir Patrick, Moore always in charge. As for me, in between painstakingly monitoring developments on the telly and painstakingly boring everyone I knew with my command of mission minutiae, I pored over diagrams from the newspapers showing Apollo 8’s tricky trajectory (suitably enough, it resembled a figure eight) and preparing for the tense vigil for to come once Anders, Lovell, and Borman first disappeared behind the dark side of the moon.
Then 1968 evolved into 1969, and Apollo 8 into Apollo 9 and from that into the dress rehearsal that was Apollo 10. The Soviet program ran into difficulties, leaving history to Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins — and the future to the rest of us. Looking at the diary I kept that year, I can see that I had marked out the projected date — July 16 — for the launch (“US MOON SHOT OFF TODAY”) of Apollo 11 some time before the momentous day itself actually dawned. This launch was something to count the days to, a grand historical happening to which the later entry in my diary didn’t do much justice: “It took off successfully.” True enough, but not enough. I gazed that day delighted and agog at television pictures of the giant rocket rising majestically into a sky then unscarred by memories of the Challenger.
Eventually Apollo 11 vanished from my sight — but not from my mind. Obsessed by thoughts of the moon landing ahead (at last!) and where it might lead (Mars!), I stalked that spacecraft over the next few days. Nothing must go wrong! TV’s designated experts did what they could to explain what was going on, helped by the models and the charts that were the best — not bad — that British television could come up with in a primitive time long before CGI. But it could never be enough: I needed to know more. I scrutinized footage of the three astronauts. How were they doing? Were they okay? I checked out cavernous, disciplined Mission Control for clues. Was all well? Who looked nervous? Between the beeps that became part of Apollo’s soundtrack, I strained to make sense of those exotic, evocative communications between Houston and spaceship that NASA chose to relay to us back “home,” a word itself now given a larger meaning than ever before.
The night of July 20 found me allowed to stay up way past my bedtime and sip from a glass of, strangely, cherry brandy (a sickly drink then mainly associated with a minor scandal involving Prince Charles) that I’d been given so I could toast Armstrong, Aldrin, and, as my mother usually described him, “poor Michael Collins.” We watched as the Eagle slowly (or so it seemed to me then) descended onto the gray surface that I believed would soon (the exciting-sounding year 2000 sounded about right) play host to moon bases and other treats; I listened to the clipped, sparse commentary of a BBC that had the sensitivity to let the descent — and the men from NASA — speak for themselves.
And it was the BBC that we watched. Despite perpetual parental muttering about its (undoubted) left-wing bias, the Stuttafords, like most British families in that era, tended to turn to the Beeb for coverage of anything really significant. July 20, 1969, showed why. ITV’s coverage revolved around hours upon hours of Frost/Moon or, more accurately, David Frost’s Moon Party, a broadcast that drove one guest, Ray Bradbury, to walk off in despair. It was not, grumbled Bradbury later, “a night for Sammy Davis Jr. or Engelbert Humperdinck.” Indeed it wasn’t.
Then finally (nearly 4 a.m., UK time — what had they been doing in there?), Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle and onto the Moon. Sitting in a house in the quiet English countryside, we raised refreshed glasses and exhaustedly contemplated the spectacle of a man walking on a rock some quarter of a million miles away. The images transmitted from the Sea of Tranquility were blurry, shadowy, appropriately dreamlike, but what had taken place was clear, even if I didn’t remain awake long enough to see Aldrin join Armstrong out in that “magnificent desolation” of theirs. No matter. As my diary for that night records: “MAN on MOON.” And so he was. And so they were. And so we were.
There are, of course, those who say that the whole thing was both a waste of money and a blind alley. I don’t agree, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’m waiting for Monday the 20th, and a chance to crack open the cherry brandy in a celebration of that extraordinary night of 40 years ago. Come to think of it, maybe not cherry brandy, but you get the point . . .
– Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.