Space Rendezvous

Okay, so my posts on Apollo 11 have been a little Stanley Kubrick-esque. In the film 2001 (Wikipedia | IMDB), the proto-human throws a bone into the air where it is suddenly replaced by ship engaged in an elaborate docking maneuver with a rotating space station, set to Strauss’s waltz, Blue Danube. It is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematography because of its purely aural-visual implication of the technological continuum from the first tool through the most unrecognizably advanced, and then, in the dance of space ships, the humaneness of otherwise inhuman machines .

On space maneuvers being like dance, here’s the official NASA Apollo 11 Spacecraft Commentary from the radio broadcast of the mission explaining what’s going to happen during the docking maneuvers of Command Module Columbia and Lunar Module Eagle (APOLLO 11 MISSION COMMENTARY, NASA, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, TX, 7/21/69 CDT 13:40, GET 125:08, 413/1, p. 466):

In all of these maneuvers Mike Collins aboard Columbia is spring loaded to do what is called a mirror image maneuver approximately a minute after the Eagle is scheduled to make its maneuver, and if for some reason Eagle can not make the maneuver, Collins would do the exact same maneuver only in reverse so that Columbia would in effect begin a CSM active rendezvous with Eagle.

The dance analogy seems apt here because, like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, Michael Collins had to do everything that Buzz Aldrin did, only backwards and in a command module.

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Apollo 11

At 20:18 UTC / 4:18 PM Eastern time, Lunar Moduel Eagle landed on the surface of the moon. Six hours of checking over instrumentation, preparations and suiting up ensued. At 02:56 UTC / 10:56 PM Eastern time, forty years ago, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the Lunar Module and became the first human to walk on the surface of a planet other than the one on which he originated.

The clichéd original “Yes we can” refrain aside, I often reflect on the fact that humans have been to the Moon and find that I can hardly believe it. And we did it forty years ago. It’s a feat I would be hard pressed to imagine we could do today, and yet we did it forty years ago!

This is a picture of a human walking on another planet:

20 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon

This is a man in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Three and a half million years earlier, humans looked more like this:

Australopithecus afarensis depicted in the Laetoli footprints diorama at the Natural History Museum, New York

This, a hairless ape, set out to explore the universe forty years ago.

This is a picture of a lander vehicle and an interplanetary vehicle conducting docking maneuvers in orbit around another planet (the Earth can be seen 384,403 km away in the distance):

21 July 1969, Lunar Module Eagle as seen from Command Module Columbia

We have actually constructed vehicles for the purpose of flying to other planets, and other vehicles for landing, and those vehicles have done so, and conducted maneuvers in orbit around another planet. There are people among us who know how to do this: engineers who can design and construct the vehicles, physics who can plot the course and lay out a mission plan, people capable of piloting the ships. It’s hard to believe.

That it has been forty years since we have done such a thing seems like a bit of a fall. What must it be like to be one of these people, a relic of the future?

Our Odyssey

Countdown to launch of Apollo 11, Firing Room 1, Kennedy Space Flight Center, 16 July 1969

NASA is currently streaming the complete mission recording of Apollo 11 in real time in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing.

It feels appropriate to listen to an Apollo 11 cycle, so to speak. This is a performance of an incredible history and a true adventure. This is our Odyssey. The Iliad and the Odyssey were typically performed over three nights. Apollo 11 was four days from launch to touchdown on the Moon (16-20 July 1969; splashdown back on Earth 24 July). John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, Neil Armstrong are our Homer, Agamemnon, Akhilleus and Priam.

I have heard it explained that part of the reason that Joyce’s Ulysses is such a pastiche is that he was trying to cram all the language of Dublin into a single work. Similarly, this week I was talking with some people about the way that David Foster Wallace appropriated the languages of commercial communication, technical writing, bureaucratic memoranda or the casual writing of e-mail to the purpose of literature. The language of our Odyssey is not Dublin bar talk, lyrical poetry or bard’s tale, but bureaucratese, engineering-speak: gage readings, mission book codes, equipment test reports, pre-burn checklists. Instead of the lyre and drum, we have the harmonics of white noise — a combination of the cosmic background radiation and electromagnetic interference of the communication and recording gear itself — and the synthetic electronic beeps of computers.