Here is Norman Mailer, born eighty-one years ago, married six times, the great egotist and American literary lion. In 1968, Mailer was jailed for his part in the Washington peace rallies. Soon after, he ran against five others for the Mayor of New York. He attracted five per cent of the vote. In 1969, Mailer covered the moonshot and by then he was exhausted, haunted, even, by the suicide of Ernest Hemingway. But the Apollo programme was an immense story worthy of Mailer’s famed prose. And what prose it is: often convoluted, arcane; staggeringly self-important and confessional by equal turns. Mailer was in his mid-forties when he wrote Of A Fire On The Moon. He was looking down on the work of the next generation: postgraduate students in black glasses, white shirts, speaking a language all of NASA’s own. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was eleven years old. For Mailer, it played a young man’s game, and it captured the blandness and arrogance of corporate America.
What did Mailer find in the dusty Houston Manned Spacecraft Center and the swamps of Cape Canaveral? The Apollo-Saturn programme was a grand enterprise indeed. In a tiny capsule – named Columbia – Neil Armstrong, a man who learned to fly before he could drive, Michael Collins, and Dr Edwin Aldrin, hoped to free themselves of Earth’s gravity, orbit the moon, land, and return to Earth not dead. Their capsule sat above a Saturn V rocket, the most powerful transport ever built. It was thirty-six storeys high. During blast-off, it would use as much oxygen in one second as half the population of the planet could draw in one gasp. And gasp they did.
The journey is dangerous. With hindsight, the odds look good. They looked good for the shuttles Challenger and Columbia too. What comment does Mailer have about the psychology of astronauts? He sees astronauts as stoics. They are inert like moon rocks; solid and dependable, even moronic, trained to click switches and provide a commentary in any emergency, the better for their successors to survive the catastrophe that might kill them. Fifteen of the sixteen NASA astronauts have blue eyes. Most of them are balding. Facts. Hints.
Prior to launch, Collins, who will remain in the service module Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin step into history, receives lengthy attention. Does Collins choke on the achievement? Does he feel cheated? No, Collins does not (Mailer reports sadly). These men are team players. They talk about the moon like David Beckham talks about the football match to come or Schumacher about the race already won: in stock phrases, tonelessly, with endless elaboration on a stultifying, simple theme, and it’s all for the team, the team.
Armstrong replies to journalists in a way that cuts to Mailer’s novelist core: with their scientific language – riding science all the way up while hiding in its skirts – these astronauts dare to weaken the moment’s drama while Mailer, the novelist, knows it should be inflated. When asked what contingency plans Armstrong has for a failure to lift-off from the lunar surface, Armstrong shrugs: “We haven’t thought about that. That’s not going to happen.” But prior to the launch, when the odds don’t look so good, it might happen. And Armstrong accepts it. He is ready to die on a rock for the team.
Describing the day of the moonwalk, Mailer writes: “Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was presumably a way to describe the most curious steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the language of Shakespeare – another to be unaware how rich was the victim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms. It was as if on the largest stage ever created, before an audience of half the earth, a man of modest appearance would walk to the centre, smile tentatively at the footlights, and read a page from a data card. The audience would groan and Beckett and Warhol give their sweet smiles.”
The team extends to the wives of the Apollo astronauts. They repeat NASA phrases as tirelessly as their husbands. (There were no female astronauts in 1969, of course, and the number of female astronauts killed in service is disproportionate.) But those wives know the risks. It is only two years since the astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee died in the Apollo-Saturn 204 launchpad fire; in their honour, the test was renamed Apollo-I. But risks be damned, there is a party line at NASA. The wives tow it and smile. Armstrong and Collins will set down in the Sea of Tranquility, and there can be no better name for the calm, dramaless NASA mission. The risks remain. Most centre on mechanical problems. No-one has tried to ignite the LEM engine in a vacuum. It may not fire for the return journey. Armstrong: “We haven’t thought about that. That’s not going to happen.”
Armstrong employed the same slow, measured prose as vice-chairman of the Presidential Commission that investigated the loss of shuttle Challenger in 1986. On the same committee was Chuck Yeager (the first man to penetrate the sound barrier) and Sally Ride (the first woman in space). These people had the Right Stuff. Mailer does not get to the bottom of this issue: What makes a person leave their planet? What is the Right Stuff? Perhaps it is a fundamental inertness, the kind that allowed Armstrong in an earlier mission to talk through scenarios with mission control while his space capsule spun faster and faster, while he was only seconds from blackout and certain death. Where will Mailer find the drama in the soul of the astronaut?
Mailer, of course, is no team player. He is an example of the arch individualist, but he tackles his subject thoroughly and raises questions where he can. We all know that there was a second fire on the moon – the LEM engine worked, and it sent Armstrong and Aldrin up to their rendezvous with Collins. Cold technology would not always prevail, but, it did for a while, and Mailer’s book charts it breathlessly, dramatically.