Apollo 1, Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, Carrying The Fire, Fallen Astronauts, Flying Bedstead, Gemini 8, Gyorgy Ligeti, In The Shadow Of The Moon, Michael Collins, Miranda, Neil Armstrong, Till All The Worlds Are Gone, To The Darkside
It seems hard to believe to me now, but there was a time before I wanted to be a composer. In those days before I knew what music was I would run around the playground enacting either one of my two ambitions, given the chance. One was to be Batman, the other was to be an astronaut. I am emphatically a child of the expanded universe, born in that short period during which a dozen men walked on the Moon. I have always been fascinated by that great upturned bowl, remember being woken up to watch some programme about the Viking landing craft, and part of my bookshelf is dedicated to the subject – the Haynes guide to Apollo 11, the moving and deeply researched Fallen Astronauts and so on.
A number of my pieces have reflected this interest, from Miranda, probably very dodgy and written some time ago, to Till All The Worlds Are Gone and, latterly, To The Darkside, both a tribute to Ligeti and a depiction of a journey to the Moon and back. They tend to be instrumental rather than choral pieces, but they are there, dotted around my output.
Just before I turned in last night I read the news that Neil Armstrong had died, and felt quite odd, as if, of all men, Armstrong would simply go on and on. What makes Armstrong so special is not just the fact that, in an age where people become famous for sleeping with footballers, he will forever remain the first human to step onto another celestial body, but that he dealt with his unique position in such a modest and unassuming way.
Had Virgil Grissom not died in the fire on Apollo 1 Armstrong may well not have been the first man on the Moon, for there is a credible line of thought that Grissom (after whom the character Gil Grissom from CSI is named), a veteran of both the Mercury and Gemini programmes, would have been chosen as the man to do so. His death, along with that of Chaffee and White, robbed the nascent Apollo programme of its most experienced flyer and almost scuppered Kennedy’s absurdly ambitious project.
Armstrong, though, was emphatically the right man for the job, unbelievably cool under pressure and already having proved his mettle at least twice, once on the so-called Flying Bedstead, which nearly killed him, and once on Gemini 8, which came within seconds of disaster. The touchdown of Eagle is also well known, the fuel within seconds of reaching a level which would have left him and Aldrin stuck on the Moon while alarms went off in the capsule. Armstrong waited, waited, found a spot and put it down. I own the NASA DVD set of the mission, and I still watch those few minutes thinking that they will have to abort the entire mission.
Some also say that Aldrin felt some kind of resentment towards Armstrong, that he should have been the first man out, but Neil pulled rank and took the honour. On the ladder, though, it is all business, describing the surface of the Moon, and even once he has said his line it is down to work. It is strange, though, that the only photo of Armstrong on the Moon is as a reflection. The story goes that Aldrin had quietly decided to take no shots of him, although Buzz may simply not have had a camera, of course.
It was once back, though, that Armstrong became a legend. He could have basked in the spotlight, grown fat off the free meals and after-dinner speeches, sipped the finest foods and wines with the richest people in the world until the end of his days. Instead, after all the hoo-ha had died down, he went back to Ohio, taught and, saddened that people were selling bits of him (autographs, even hair on one occasion), refused to give interviews. Maybe he was shy, but I like to think that he felt that a dignified silence befitted his unique and unrepeatable status in history. His first wife had a slightly different point of view – “look what it’s done to him inside. He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people. He’s certainly led an interesting life. But he took it too seriously to heart.”
The only time I have begrudged him his silence is when he refused to take part in the magnificent film In The Shadow Of The Moon, an award-winning documentary featuring interviews with those astronauts who went to the Moon. Michael Collins, who was the third member of that Apollo 11 crew, emerges as quite the star – indeed, his autobiography Carrying The Fire is not just the best autobiography I have ever read, it is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. Armstrong, though, is absent from the screen, and it is a significant absence.
In not too many years from now we will reach the stage where there is nobody left alive who went to the Moon, and I find that hard to believe, a backwards step akin to taking Concorde out of the skies. Economics clearly play a role, but it is a poor person who harbours no dreams. For all that, though, Armstrong fills a unique place in human history, one which will be recognised as long as humans have a history, and his footprints will stay up there on the Moon for many, many thousands of years yet. I like to think of him also as a dignified man, one who tried not to let fame of a kind previously unknown change him, and one who was modest and private in his success, who never lost his sense of wonder. In short, he was that rarest of things, a hero who is also an example.