Just read Apollo 13. Forget being a fireman. I want to be an astronaut!
About 13 years ago
Imagine if wide-eyed kids and journalists had Twitter during the space race and in the decades after. I might have written the line above to broadcast to my friends and followers (as Twitter calls subscribers) when I first became an astronaut-wannabe in sixth grade. Jay Barbree, Norman Mailer and other early space correspondents could have used 140-character bursts in their reporting 40 years ago, describing the ups and downs of the race to land a man on the moon.
In late spring this year, my editor Oliver Morton asked the news team at Nature, where we both worked, to re-imagine the Apollo 11 mission in the clipped rhythms of new media’s latest fad: Twitter.
#Apollo11 passes 9-hr flight readiness review: 16 July launch date approved. http://twitpic.com/7m76r*
7:55 a.m. June 17
I found myself digging through newspaper archives to find the granular details we needed to bring Apollo 11 back to life as ApolloPlus40 on Twitter. For a few weeks before the July 16 launch in 1969, entire front pages in mid-sized American cities were given over to whatever space trivia the news wires were offering that day. The minutiae of medical tests and computer-simulated moon landings made headlines, relegating the war in Vietnam to page two.
They won’t just drink Tang on the moon. Bacon squares, peaches and sugar cookies, anyone? http://bit.ly/7b1lo
4:02 p.m. June 30
Nobody asks a 12-year-old why they want to be an astronaut–but if anyone had asked me then, I probably would have answered that going to space seemed like the ultimate camping trip using the ultimate gadgets. I had read Apollo 13, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, at an age when my weekends were devoted to taking increasingly ambitious outdoor adventures with my Scout troop and fiddling with plastic model airplanes.
Hypergolic fuel loading of #Apollo11 Saturn V begins today. More on rocket fuels http://bit.ly/w60ir
5:39 a.m. June 18
In college, I studied astronomy as preparation to apply to the astronaut corps. I gazed in wonder at midnight lightning storms from a mountaintop telescope in the Sonoran Desert. I did physics problems late at night with my classmates’ help. I trained to be a pilot and a scientist so that, one day, I could be an astronaut–but I got side-tracked.
Time-Life offer astronauts $400,000 for book rights to lunar landing story http://bit.ly/LpMwv
10:01 a.m. July 2
Nobody’s offered me $400,000 to write anything yet, but when I won a fellowship to write for a year after college, I took it. During that year, I realized that I was as drawn to the storytelling and the characters in Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff as I was to the gadgets and the glory. The friendly grad student who taught me to use a telescope and the classmates who saw me through my homework were a part of today’s grand adventure. I could detach myself from their community but still write about them and the research they did.
I traded in my Space Camp astronaut wings for a press card and began freelancing about science and scientists before landing a three-month gig at Nature. When my bosses there gave me the chance to re-visit the moon landings, I approached it with some of the old excitement, but also with more skeptical eyes. I found myself focused less on the technical achievement of reaching the moon and more on the decision making, as if I were a journalist covering the Apollo program in 1969. This time, I wanted to know who pulled the strings and where the money led. I also wondered whether we could really put a new spin on one of the last century’s most-covered beats.
Knives out for NASA. Congress cuts NASA budget from $4.1 billion in 1969 to $3.7 billion in 1970–lowest since 1962.
10:00 a.m. June 24
Adjusted for inflation, NASA’s 2009 budget of just under $18 billion is about three-quarters of the scaled-back 1970 budget. I found that twittering with 40 years of hindsight let me add context in a way that reporters in 1969 could not. ApolloPlus40 may not be exclusive journalism, but digging for 40-year-old moon dirt makes for thought-provoking reflection.
#Apollo11 a “colossal perversion of energy, thought and other precious human resources” http://bit.ly/A1LyH
12:00 p.m. July 7
My tweets read like what journalists call the deck, or sub-headline, of a news story. They are meatier than the pithy headline but tease more than the first sentence of an article. Sitting in Nature’s newsroom this spring, I found myself looking for the juicy little sub-narratives that threatened to reopen decades-old debates over the value of the first lunar landing and, ultimately, over how a society should allocate its resources.
Poor will approach “as close as possible” to launch site with mules and wagons to protest “miscalculation in priorities.”
7:00 a.m. July 12
The days leading up to the launch must have resembled a carnival, with mules munching fodder in the shadow of a gleaming rocket nearly three times as tall as the Statue of Liberty. These details of conflict and controversy showed me that the moon landing was more than the ultimate camping trip. It was an expression of a nation’s sense of community, strong in times of trouble but always tenuous, and eventually fractured when other threats replaced the specter of a Soviet-conquered moon.
Survey says 51% of Americans favor manned lunar landing to 41 against–change from 49 against, 39 for in February.
7:00 a.m. July 14
Americans today bemoan the lack of a flashy national project, but even at the height of excitement about Apollo 11, barely half of those surveyed registered approval. Some blame NASA, the government or lukewarm public opinion for stopping the program after just six landings. But by the time Apollo 11 splashed back to Earth, the U.S. had achieved its explicit goal of returning men from the moon and its implicit goal of restoring its superpower status. It’s possible that lawmakers were only acting on their constituents’ wishes when they moved on to other matters after Apollo 11. When the timing is once again right, perhaps future citizens and their elected officials will be willing to make the sacrifices it will take to return to the moon.
The 40-year-old cutting-edge technical achievement I reported in 2009 kept the newspaper pages full in 1969 and impressed my 12-year-old, wannabe-astronaut self. But I also learned it’s dangerous to exaggerate Apollo’s unifying effect. Doing that would discount one of its most inspiring lessons–that even a country divided by controversy, one whose public is ambivalent at best, can achieve an ambitious goal and continually reorder its priorities. For that skeptical ex-scientist in me, also known as the 25-year-old journalist, that hopeful legacy may be Apollo’s most impressive.
*Errors which appeared in some of the quoted tweets are corrected here.
See this essay in its original form at Forbes.com [html] or see the rest of the Forbes special report “The Moon”.