After Apollo

Last week, we marked the anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon. But I’ve been mesmerized by another aspect of one of the greatest leaps in the history of mankind: sitting around.

In 1969, We weren’t sure whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might pick up an alien disease on the surface of the moon. Under the Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law, Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins spent 21 days under quarantine as soon as they returned to Earth. Initially, that meant hanging out in a “van” aboard the U.S.S. Hornet. As though eight days in a spaceship the size of a Dumpster wasn’t bad enough, now the men had to spend another few weeks in what was essentially an Airstream trailer, waiting to see whether Alien-style babies would punch their way out of their abdomens.

Which brings me to this photo, collected in The Atlantic’s Apollo 11 gallery. I’ve returned to it again and again in the past week. According to the Apollo Archive, it was taken July 26, 1969, two days after the men returned to Earth.

The Apollo 11 crew relaxes in the quarantine van on July 26, 1969. (
I love the small details: Buzz (center) smiling about something with Collins (left). Armstrong (right) reading the paper. The personalized embroidery on the Navy baseball caps. Their “Hornet + 3″ buttons. The microphone mounted on the ceiling. The mod-futuristic chairs with seat belts and collapsing armrests. Buzz’s sneakers. The box of Del Monte (canned fruit?) on the floor.

The photo is taken from the outside looking in. Appropriate, for that’s the extent of our experience of the moon missions. Vicariously, through a glass, marveling at the ultimate destination vacation we’ll never be able to afford. The pedestrian activity on display in the quarantine van only serves to highlight the cosmic divide between ordinary men and the Men of Apollo. They read the paper. Laugh at a joke. Wear sneakers. And walked across the surface of the moon.

Carl Sagan asks, “What was Apollo really about?”