Half a century after the launch of the Apollo 11 mission, Ken MacTaggart explains why no photographs were taken of Neil Armstrong
As a teenager, 50 years ago this summer, I watched the fuzzy black-and-white television broadcast of Neil Armstrong taking humanity’s first steps on the surface of the Moon. (In NASA’s Apollo 11 Flight Journal, which I co-edit, we use Moon with a capital M as it is a ‘place’ that has been visited, not just a blob in the sky.)
My family, grouped around an old Bush television set, shared that moment with a sixth of the human race.
Sending live TV, however blurred, across 240,000 miles between two worlds was an extraordinary technical achievement in 1969. But apart from two hazy, white-suited figures hopping in the low gravity, we could discern very little. A proper appreciation of the lunar scenery, the activities of Armstrong and his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin, and the famous footprints would have to await the return of colour film from their hand-held camera – there was of course no digital imagery in those days.
Three days later, when the Apollo 11 capsule parachuted safely into the Pacific Ocean, the American space agency NASA quickly flew the astronauts’ film cartridges to Houston to be developed. As the images emerged from the darkroom, public relations staff and technical analysts searched for a photograph of Armstrong on the Moon – and then, with mounting anxiety, minutely examined them again. They found not one.
Eagle glittering in the intense sunlight, unfiltered by any atmosphere. There was the experiment equipment sitting on the lunar surface; the American flag; and the sharp-edged boot prints, as if the men had walked in cement powder or fine flour.
Many pictures included an astronaut.Although both men wore identical white spacesuits, the two could be distinguished by what they were doing in the photos, as each was allocated different tasks. In frontal views, the pin-sharp film captured a little name tag sewn on the chest – and every tag read ‘ALDRIN’.
In the rush to beat the Russians to the Moon, NASA left much of the Apollo 11 mission unplanned – and had neglected to instruct Aldrin to photograph his commander. Armstrong included Aldrin in almost 30 photos, climbing out of the landing craft, saluting Old Glory, carrying experiments, hammering a core tube into the soil. But Aldrin never reciprocated, even though their single camera often passed between the pair.
Curiously, Armstrong did not ask Aldrin to take his picture – not for the history books nor for NASA’s image-conscious PR men; not for his young sons, then aged 12 and 6, nor for his living-room wall; not even for his proud parents who followed his exploits on TV.
The iconic image of man on the Moon, facing the camera in white spacesuit and shiny helmet visor, is of Buzz Aldrin. Anyone who has ever opened a magazine has seen it. Not until 1987 did two British researchers, H J P Arnold and Keith Wilson, uncover that Aldrin, while taking photos around the landing site, had, quite unawares, included the figure of Armstrong working in shadows at the landing craft, his back to the camera.
It was an omission that embarrassed NASA in the moment of its greatest triumph, the fulfilment of President John F Kennedy’s pledge made in 1962: ‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade.’
That goal had been kindled by Russia’s superiority in space at the height of the Cold War, to redirect a military rivalry into a less dangerous technological one.
America’s vastly expensive lunar programme had finally delivered; it had been meticulously rebuilt after the disaster of the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, in which three of the country’s ace astronauts had perished in a burning capsule.
Apollo 11 itself had overcome potentially fatal problems on its descent into the alien lunar landscape. The craft’s overloaded computer flashed mysterious warnings threatening a perilous abort. Steve Bales, a 26-year-old technician at Mission Control, confidently announced that the crew could ignore the alarms, and it was safe to continue.
As the lander approached the surface, Armstrong was aghast to see the computer directing them into a crater strewn with boulders large enough to capsize their craft. Taking manual control, he flew over the danger and, almost out of fuel, landed on a small, flat patch of gravel.
Disaster averted, now there was no image of the expedition’s leader walking on the Moon – a man whose name would stand for ever alongside those of Columbus, Magellan and the Wright brothers in the galleries of human exploration.
The oversight long haunted Aldrin, provoking debate about his motives for excluding Armstrong from the record of the celebrated moonwalk.
But the truth seems to be cock-up rather than conspiracy: a lack of awareness in the single-minded Aldrin, combined with Armstrong’s natural modesty, rather than petty jealousy between men who were largely strangers to each other.