Space Oddity: Of London And Apollo 10

By Londonist Last edited 63 months ago
Space Oddity: Of London And Apollo 10


Image by Ian Visits in the Londonist Flickr pool and under Creative Commons licence.

Elizabeth Holdsworth takes a look at one of the Science Museum's most treasured objects.

The Command Module of Apollo 10 basks under spotlights on the ground floor of London’s Science Museum. Nearly 45 years ago this capsule made its way around the moon. It's now one of the most popular attractions for the museum.

The vessel is the shape of a lampshade (which, we learn, is technically called a frustum). It was equipped with the defences to protect three astronauts from the harshness of space and the fireball of re-entry, yet it is no larger than a very small skip. A very heavy small skip, that is — it weighs nearly seven tons.

This historic little space ship was first loaned to the Science Museum in 1976 from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and has remained on an extended loan ever since.

While this object would seem to have little connection to London, other than its longterm residence, the relationship runs deeper. The Apollo 10 Command Module can be seen as one of the city’s most technologically and spiritually important objects; it arguably says more about the achievements of the 20th century than any other single object here.

The Saturn V rockets, which lofted the Apollo capsules to the moon, were developed directly from V2 rocket technology, fired on London by the Nazis only two and a half decades before. One of these V-weapons stands just metres away from the Apollo 10 capsule in the Science Museum.

Further, Faster

The astronauts of Apollo 10 never landed on the moon. Their mission, in May 1969, was a dress rehearsal. It was the Apollo 11 mission in July of Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins that one-small-stepped the Apollo program indelibly into public memory. Yet before this could be achieved, the mission of Cernan, Stafford and Young was to make the unimaginably long journey out of Low Earth Orbit and around the moon.

Granted, we know that these astounding events all happened with an urgency spurred on by Cold War fear and international one-upmanship, but the implications for humanity outweighed the bleak political aims of the Space Race. Apollo’s significance for mankind transcended its own ideological atmosphere. On the Apollo missions, for the first time, a human eye could see the planet’s entire orb in a single glance.

In the Apollo 10 Command Module (call-sign Charlie Brown), the three astronauts sailed through space towards the moon. Locked in tow was a Lunar Module designed to make a landing (call-sign Snoopy, it was identical to Aldrin and Armstrong’s lander, Eagle, but never destined to make the giant leap to its full potential), and a Service Module equipped to sustain their lives for the eight-day journey. On completion of the Apollo 10 flight, NASA officials ordered the astronauts of the following mission to adopt more majestic call-signs for their flight vessels, names such as Eagle that would more appropriately represent the seriousness of the moment — perhaps we should say, the gravity — of the first human landing upon the moon.

When Apollo 10 reached the moon Cernan and Stafford test piloted the delicate gold-foil Lunar Module to within a few miles of the surface, then left it empty and adrift. Together the three astronauts sailed around the unseen side of the moon, for a time losing all contact with home. As they rounded the lunar surface they saw the earth rise and they were filled with wonder at the beauty and fragility of the world. The gravitational force of the moon flung them back on their return journey and they silently soared faster than living beings ever traveled before or since.

The City and the Stars

The detached Command Module now on display in London brought its three occupants blazing back to Earth in a fireball of atmospheric friction. Looking now at the burnished exterior of the craft, its heat shield coating resembles dirty brass or varnished oak, segmented by small triangular windows and studded with rivets. More steam punk than space age.

How different was the view of London in the sixties? St Paul’s Cathedral was still among the tallest buildings on the skyline, God reaching up into the cosmos. It was superseded by the Post Office Tower, a futuristic wand of concrete and glass looming over Fitzrovia. While outer space is infinitely wide and almost empty, in the city, space comes at a premium. And so we built upwards. The Shard is pointing to the sky — the only way is up.

The great city holds more to see and do and more ways to connect and communicate with others than ever before, a caricature of infinity. Yet this vastness can be, for some, a lonely vacuum. As David Bowie sang in his 1969 anthem Space Oddity, capturing for some the spirit of the time: ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’. The moon, object of both comforting familiarity and mystical otherness, watches over us and reminds us that on this fragile planet we are together and at home. But the moon is a harsh and lifeless desert. The titles of its great barren seas, Serenity, Tranquility, belie the extreme conditions of scorching airless days and subfreezing nights on a desolate landscape of abrasive, asbestos-like moon dust and rocks far drier than bones.

From the Moon to South Kensington

Now that the technology that got us to the moon lies gathering dust in museums, the most lasting impression we are left with is one of humanity’s self truth. Reflecting on the legacy of the Apollo program, astronaut Eugene Cernan put it perfectly, 'We went to explore the moon, and in fact discovered the Earth'. But how did one of the most important space ships from that era land in South Kensington?

Objects from the US Space Program were toured during the 1970s both to appeal to the world population’s timely appetite for space travel, but also as a form of victory lap. The Americans had won the race.

Documents from the Science Museum’s archive indicate that the Apollo 10 Command Module had been shown in France and the Netherlands, before coming to London. There is even the suggestion that it spent a brief spell in the Soviet Union. Touring a seven ton space ship, in a state of ‘considerable disrepair’, was no easy feat and required much funding and planning. This was initiated by the now defunct United States Information Agency. It was tacit propaganda, affirming the victory over the Soviets in the race to the moon. But once the Command Module landed in South Kensington, efforts to move it anywhere else seemed too costly and difficult. So the craft settled in.

Although cumbersome, the curators of the museum were more than pleased to receive this important attraction. An internal letter from Dr EJ Becklake remarks, '...obviously we must accept. Apollo 10 would be the only authentic manned space capsule on display in Western Europe and, I believe, the only manned capsule to have travelled around the moon on display anywhere outside the States. Its technical content speaks for itself, and the public interest it would arouse would be enormous'. When the Museum came to renew the object’s insurance in 1986, its value was estimated at £1.25 million.

So, pause a moment. What exactly does Apollo 10 say about London? Everything, Ground Control. That our conception of the present, and even the future, is firmly rooted in our remembrances of the past. That more than any American city, perhaps, London is a highly nostalgic place, a city that remembers, albeit not always cognitively. And that looking to the heavens to help us visualise London will evoke metaphors that hint at a certain formlessness of thought. The city as unknowable. And we’re floating, sang Bowie, in a most peculiar way. The truth is stranger than (science) fiction.

By Elizabeth Holdsworth

Last Updated 18 December 2013