Fifty years ago, on July 16 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were strapped inside the tip of a 111m tall rocket filled with 2,500 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen. At 2.32pm this was ignited. If something had gone wrong on launch, the Saturn V rocket would have exploded with the force of a small atomic bomb.
As well as this rather worrying health and safety concern, the three astronauts carried the ambition of a nation and the hopes of the wider world. Their whole lives, years of training, focussed on this apex.
The brilliant Apollo 11 documentary from Todd Douglas Miller, still screening across the country to coincide with this anniversary week, uses restored archive footage to outline the mission in minute-by-breathless-minute detail. You are with the crew, hundreds of technicians and thousands of spectators on the scene as countdown commences, and as the rocket rumbles into the sky.
As it enters orbit, the voice of a medical officer reports the heartrate of the astronauts during blast off as they battled G-forces and faced either the ultimate ascension or total annihilation. The average resting heartrate for an adult is anywhere between 60-100 beats per minute. At this moment, Buzz Aldrin’s was 88.
Sitting in the cinema, I swivelled my wrist and my Fitbit blinked to show that my pulse wasn’t far behind. This morning on the commute to work it reached the 80s (but the train was running a few minutes late).
If you believe what they say, our political leaders can do absolutely anything… except admit they might make mistakes and be wrong sometimes
OK, these guys were chosen to pioneer new frontiers because they had the right stuff. They were sound enough in body and mind to keep calm and carry on to the moon, while the rest of us earthlings get stressed by what feels like ever-increasing irritants and frustrations.
There is one detail the documentary didn’t touch on. In an interview with The Big Issue a few years back, Aldrin recalled what happened when he first stepped on to the surface of the moon: “For some biological reason the first thing I did at the bottom of the ladder was to urinate into my spacesuit.” That confession is hardly as catchy as Armstrong’s famous first words, but if you’re going to have a leak in your spacesuit, that’s probably the best kind. Part of having the right stuff is admitting your fallibilities and limitations. Those don’t, as the swill slopping in Aldrin’s space boots would testify, have to hold us back.
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Today we are obsessed with presenting a considered, curated image of ourselves. We hide our faults while being quick to judge those of others. If you believe what they say, our political leaders can do absolutely anything… except admit they might make mistakes and be wrong sometimes.
We might not have enough of the right stuff to be blasted into space (or into Number 10) but maybe we can aim for the alright stuff. Trying our best, doing unto others… Accepting that perfection is impossible and even if it did exist that it would be an undesirable quality.
Some people can achieve amazing, world-shifting feats. Some people can wear a fitness tracker in an attempt to track how bad their fitness is and hopefully make improvements. Giant leaps are tough but small steps could get us somewhere too.
Steven MacKenzie is features editor of The Big Issue