One Small Step, One Giant Leap: Moonfire by Norman Mailer

Forty-one years ago today, the door of a spider-like tinfoil contraption swung open, an average-looking man with an average-sounding name stepped out, paused, and then descended a short ladder to the fine grey dust below.

It was July 20, 1969, and NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon.

Contact between this dust and this man’s boot changed everything: mankind had visited another planetary body; NASA met the goal Kennedy had set them, and with only five months to spare; the US won the space race and, unbeknownst to them at the time, plotted a course for co-operation with their Soviet rivals. As one of my favorite Kennedy Space Center attractions points out, ‘for the first time we were one people, with one history.’

It also ensured that I would become truly, madly and deeply obsessed with all things Apollo.

Last year Taschen Books contributed to the fortieth anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11′s lunar landing by publishing a limited edition book called Moonfire, a stunning weighty volume filled with amazing LIFE magazine photos and Norman Mailer’s writings on the subject, originally published as Of a Fire On the Moon in 1971.

And when I say limited, I mean limited: only 1,969 copies were printed (1969 – geddit?) in two editions. The ‘Collector’s Edition’ was in a special case with a signed print of the cover boy, Buzz Aldrin, and retailed for about $1,500 or so. However if you wanted to do some serious splurging, you could get the really limited edition, complete with a piece of lunar rock, for around €75,000. Both price tags, unfortunately, were beyond the means of my meagre budget and so when I found out that Taschen had produced a non-special edition for us plebs, I let out a little squeal.

And then bought it immediately, of course.

When LIFE magazine approached Mailer about covering the moonshot, they were talking about no small job. The finished piece would be the longest article every printed by them – the only other writer afforded such space was Hemingway for his novella, The Old Man and the Sea. Harboring spaceman dreams of his own, Mailer eagerly flew to Houston and then later, down to the Cape (‘Spaceport,’ Mailer writes. ‘Think on it! Spaceport!’), drawing on his engineering background to make sense of the science.

German rocket genius Wernher von Braun with models of the rockets he designed. Note the removed ceiling tile.

Shuffling from place to place on buses with the rest of the press pack, Mailer managed to infiltrate all the important parties, from the former Nazi who’d designed the rocket, to the astronaut wives, to the shanty town of camper vans lining US-1 in anticipation of the launch. He reported it all from the perspective of an alter-ego invented for the occasion, Aquarius.

And then of course, there were the astronauts themselves.

The crew of Apollo 11 put on their PR faces. Mercury astronaut and Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton sits on the left.

These ordinary men struggled to connect with the journalists who’d been assigned to uncovering every aspect of their lives, their families and their minds. Living in a NASA bubble of jargon and technicians, they couldn’t provide layman’s answers and anyway, the reporters didn’t have the right questions. When asked how they thought it would feel to walk on the moon, the crew of Apollo 11 mumbled about operational checklists. They couldn’t admit to fear; they didn’t feel it. Faced with the possibility of not coming back, Commander Neil Armstrong (who, according to Mailer, was ‘in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to play’) would only concede that at worst, it was ‘an unpleasant thing’ to think about.

A newly-built Vehicle Assembly Building dominates a busy Kennedy Space Center. Two launch platforms are being readied in the foreground while a third takes a Saturn V to the launch pad.

Initially Mailer was in two minds as to whether or not there was any actual point to NASA’s space endeavors, but his mind was turned at the First Church of the VAB – the Vehicle Assembly Building. It was inside it that ‘[the] full brawn of the rocket came over him in this cavernous womb of an immensity, this giant cathedral of a machine designed to put together another machine which would voyage through space. Yes, this emergence of a ship to travel the ether was no event he could measure by any philosophy he had been able to put together in his brain… VAB – it could be the name of the a drink or a deodorant… [but] it was not a name for this warehouse of the gods.’

A four-page fold out shows the monstrous Saturn V moonrocket at lift-off.

But it is Mailer’s description of lift-off that takes you beyond the limitations of the grainy, slow-mo archival footage, and plants you instead at the Cape as they set the Saturn V alight. If I’d read this before I’d written Mousetrapped‘s ‘Mission Space’ chapter, I might not have even bothered, because who needs any account of it other than this one?

“[T]he lift-off itself seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon, as if all of huge Saturn itself had begun silently to levitate, and was then pursued by flames. No, it was more dramatic than that. For the flames were enormous… Flames flew in cataract against the cusp of the flame shield, and then sluiced along the paved ground down two opposite channels in the concrete, two underground rivers of flame… [T]his slim angelic mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky… slowly as we might swim upward in a dream looking for air… [T]hen came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault… and he heard himself saying, ‘Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!’… A ship of flames was on its way to the moon.”

Busy Buzz: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin gets to work on the surface of the moon. THE SURFACE OF THE MOON, people!

Mailer called Apollo 11‘s lunar landing the ‘the climax of the greatest week since Christ was born,’ and we are forever lucky that a writer of his calibre was there to capture it for us.

Some of my other favorite Apollo books:

Coincidentally, the summer of 1969 also saw another admirable feat of engineering that involved a race between the US and the Soviets, only this one also involved the French and the British, and wasn’t about flying in space but at the very edge of it: Concorde flew for the first time. Last week I watched a fantastic documentary on Channel 4, Concorde’s Last Flight, which told the story of the most beautiful flying machine ever built and its sad, sudden and unjust end. After recovering from the tragedy at Charles de Gaulle on July 25, 2000 – almost ten years ago – British Airways spent millions on repairs, refits and refurbishments, only to complete its successful return to flight on September 11th, 2001. A black day for aviation, its shadow covered Concorde more than most and in 2003, the failing bottom line forced it out of service.

The world’s only supersonic commercial airliner, it sped down the runway faster than a Formula 1 car and cut through the sky at twice the speed of sound, or faster than a bullet discharged from a rifle. I saw Concorde just the once, flying over my fourteen-year-old head while I toured Legoland Windsor, in the summer of 1997*, and one of my greatest regrets is that I never got to fly on her. (It’s the only civilian flying machine other than Branson’s space plane to afford a view of the curvature of the earth and it’s $12,000 round trip price tag wasn’t anywhere near as expensive.) The documentary was filled with British Airways staff and frequent Concorde flyers still mourning the loss of their great plane, and by the end of it I was in tears myself.

If you live in the UK or Ireland you can watch Concorde’s Last Flight on Channel’s 4 online player, 4OD and – bonus! – you can also watch another inspiring documentary that regularly brings me to tears, In the Shadow of the Moon. Can you guess what that one’s about?

I know, I know. This is the coolest thing you've seen all day.

In a link of a very tenuous nature, look at my newest travel cup: my friend Anne brought it back for me from Kennedy Space Center. (This is the same Anne who also brought me Eight O’Clock Coffee and a box of Oreo Cakesters. She rocks!) On the back it says, ‘Go Vertical.’ I would if I could, KSC. Would if I could!

P.S. If you’ve read Mousetrapped, you’ll already know that I’m deeply in love with all things Apollo. And if you haven’t read it, you can read the Mission Space chapter in its entirety on Keris Stainton’s blog.

*No one in my family can confirm that this actually happened. Either it was a dream I had or – more likely – all of their mothballed memory banks happen to be missing that same day. Would Concorde, en route from New York, even be flying over Windsor? Fudge knows. But I like to think that I did see it, okay?

6 thoughts on “One Small Step, One Giant Leap: Moonfire by Norman Mailer

  1. Ben Johncock says:

    Great post Cath!

    I’ve been meaning to tell you – I finally found a copy of this in the Waterstone’s mothership on Piccadilly last week. Absolutely stunning. Some fantastic photos that I’d not seen before. Hard to believe, that.

    It makes Mailer’s prose easier to read, too. The tiny, beaten up paperback I have of ‘Of A Fire…’ is rather dense…

    I have some book tokens burning a whole in my pocket, and they have this puppy’s name all over them.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      That’s so funny because I was thinking I’d get the paperback as THAT would be easier to read! (Turns out it’s hard to concentrate on the text of a book that weighs as much as a small child on your lap.) And I think it’s extracted so I’d like to read the whole thing.

      The photos are definitely what makes it – they’re amazing and some are unseen. Go buy it now! 🙂

      (And start saving for the lunar rock edition!)

  2. Christy says:

    Part of me (ok all of me) is always completely stunned that they did all this with 1960’s technology. I mean, basically without computers, right? Look at the size of the video cameras! They drove themselves to the moon and it was all done analog-style.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Absolutely, Christy. Apparently the computer onboard the LEM (lunar module) had less memory that a fancy pocket calculator would have today. That’s the kind of thing that feeds the conspiracy theorists which I think Apollo should take a compliment really – it’s so fantastical, it’s unreal. But then Concorde flew the same year and it was the first aircraft to fly by wire. So crazy tech advances weren’t just happening in space! 🙂

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