Archive for August, 2009

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s new book ‘The Land of Eagles’ in August 2009 Bookdealer magazine

August 26, 2009

Breughelesque farmers in Byronic landscapes

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s ‘The Land of Eagles: Riding through Europe’s Forgotten Country’

The trouble with the Balkans, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, is they create more history than they can consume. And while, as with so many of the old Bulldog’s more epigrammatic sayings, this may on the surface appear to make sense, it’s also an expression with hidden shallows. Certainly, the geographical region we now call Albania (or more likely ‘plucky little Albania’) has had more than its fair share of invasions, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political upheaval over the centuries, largely because of its situation on the political fault-line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. But paradoxically, from the 21st century perspective at least, As Robin Hanbury-Tenison points out in his superb Land of Eagles, it is also one of the most dormant, remote and traditional countries in a fast-changing Europe that has apparently forgotten all about it.

Obscured by communism and locked away behind ramparts of impassable mountains, Albania may have been overlooked economically and may well lack what we today call development. But it has long and constantly attracted the literary and cultural traveller.

As Hanbury-Tenison points out, Albania is awash with literary and cultural references. Shakespeare set Twelfth Night in Illyria, an ancient region of the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic coast that is modern Albania. In Così fan tutte Mozart casts his two scheming lovers as ‘Albanian Noblemen’. Edward Gibbon describes Albania as ‘a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America’. And of course Byron set his lengthy narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Albania, the country the romantic poet rode through with his friend John Cam Hobhouse in 1809. Edward Lear swung into the saddle to ride across the landscape, a journey ultimately expressed in his 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. Noted Victorian traveller Edith Durham, often described as the first woman war correspondent and a great enthusiast for the Albanian people, also rode through the mountains before publishing her epic book High Albania. For the record, Hanbury-Tenison comments that up in the high mountain passes of the north ‘these are the woods where Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter books goes to lie low after being defeated. We could see why, as they felt quite divorced from the rest of the world.’

Hanbury-Tenison is a renowned and veteran horseman, and he likes to do his travelling on horseback. A few years ago I interviewed him for the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, and he told me that ‘on foot with a pack you see nothing but your feet. In a car you are insulated from the real world. But on a horse, you have an intelligent animal doing all of the work and most of the thinking, leaving you free to look and listen, to communicate with those you meet.’ These could so easily be the words of the explorer’s hero and mentor, Wilfred Thesiger, and in emulating the great desert traveller Hanbury-Tenison is preserving something of a noble tradition that sees exploring as being about discovering things rather than breaking records. And it’s a formula that has obviously worked and stood the test of time, with Hanbury-Tenison previously riding through and writing about China, Spain, New Zealand and France.

And now Albania. Although the real question is probably ‘why Albania?’ Why not, the author seems to imply, recounting a story of how he first met the Crown Prince Leka of Albania at Sandhurst. The prince had been on a military exercise with the explorer’s son and was covered with mud. He clicked the heels of his boots together in the manner of a Prussian officer before announcing: ‘You will always be welcome in my country.’ Hanbury-Tenison took him at face value and in 2007 he and his wife Louella went on an expedition along the length of the country from Theth in the north to Erind in the south. The result is Land of Eagles, a good old-fashioned travel book, and the sort that would win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award if it were still going. It’s got just the right balance of travelogue and digression, contrasting a gruelling expedition journal with riveting trivia and occasionally complex political history. One minute Hanbury-Tenison will breezily relate an anecdote about how Norman Wisdom became a national hero, while the next he’ll describe the Balkan Peace Park Project, an initiative where an environmentally protected area is set aside to unite communities and encourage tourism into a war-torn region. This appeals to the environmentalist in Hanbury-Tenison who explains in some depth how substantial chunks of Southern Montenegro and western Kosovo have been joined to the Albanian section, making a total area of 3,000 square kilometres… ‘The fact that this just happens to be the most beguiling and least known corner of Europe makes it a winner.’

Although Hanbury-Tenison’s knowledge of the region is impressive, both historically and culturally, he’s at his best when he’s in the saddle on the open road, which is quite often little more than the narrowest of tracks, often with a precipice one side and a cliff the other. He makes no secret that it is a hard journey: some of the mountain passes and suspension bridges would be terrifying to a man half his age, but now in his seventies Hanbury-Tenison occasionally allows himself to admit just how onerous the task is. To make matters worse the tracks that he uses are dismally signposted in a land without map or seemingly reliable guides. But for all his frustrations he is boyishly optimistic and genuinely enchanted by the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. In a sentence that could only have been written by Hanbury-Tenison he describes ‘the bucolic charm of Breughelesque farmers, who belong to the Byronic landscape so perfectly.’

Robin Hanbury-Tenison has always been an intensely busy man. Download his CV from his website and you will read what you’d be forgiven for thinking is a description of several action-packed lives. Of course he’s best known as an explorer – having lead or taken part in more than 30 expeditions – in which capacity he’s brought to the wider public the plight of the tribal peoples of the world as well as the rainforest. He’s also been named by the Sunday Times in 1982 as ‘the greatest explorer of the past 20 years’, and again in 1991 as one of the 1000 ‘Makers of the 20th Century’. He deserves to be much better known as an author and perhaps with the publication of Land of Eagles this slight injustice is about to be put right.

The Land of Eagles is published by I B Tauris, HB, £19.99 · ISBN 978-1845118556

For more information about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit http://www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

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Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ in the Literary Review (archive stuff)

August 26, 2009

Candour in Kandy

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’

Christopher Ondaatje’s best book to date is a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the years preceding the Great War. Woolf in Ceylon is simultaneously a reconstruction of its subject’s term of office as a civil servant on the colonial outpost; a photographic archive of a long-vanished society in the heyday of empire; a literal journey in Woolf’s footsteps through war-ravaged twenty-first-century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue. These four threads are woven together to make a well thought-out book, similar in genre to Ondaatje’s Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2003). The literary world may well be thirsty for Victoria Glendinning’s much-anticipated biography of the man of letters, but Ondaatje’s timely offering constitutes a valuable analysis of Woolf in his most formative years.

Ondaatje is well placed to comment on Woolf: born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, his early life is a curious mirror image of his subject’s. While the young Woolf, freshly graduated from Cambridge, sailed eastward to Ceylon for a stint in the Civil Service in order to learn the imperial ropes, Ondaatje was packed off in the other direction to a private school in Devon to discover how to become an English gentleman. The parallels continue, and it’s not hard to see why Woolf holds such a fascination for Ondaatje. Nor is it hard to draw the conclusion that Ondaatje’s return to Sri Lanka in 2004 to take photographs for the book has a personal significance akin to that of Woolf’s triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.

Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanations of some of the imperial workings of the British Civil Service, a system that plagued the highly-strung Woolf. He was one of the first to see the cracks appearing in the British Empire, and his understanding of the situation clearly influenced the thinking of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party in the years leading up to 1945.

The volume also comprises an important reappraisal of Woolf’s early novel The Village in the Jungle, which is set in Ceylon during the time of his posting there. Currently revived under the Eland banner (having been out of print in the UK since the early 1980s, though it has never gone out of print in Sri Lanka), the new edition has an afterword by Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon, he convincingly contends that The Village in the Jungle ‘s importance lies primarily in its being one of the very few books to deal with a colonial situation from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser – a blatant clue to Woolf’s developing mistrust of, and later disgust with, imperialism. In his epilogue Ondaatje indulges in some literary forensics as he sets out to find the original village of the title, long thought to be fictional. Working on the basis that Woolf’s fiction is nearly always rooted in established, demonstrable fact, the author makes the not unreasonable assumption that the double murder central to the novel’s plot must have happened in a real place. True to his explorer’s instincts, Ondaatje not only finds the actual site of Beddagama, but also makes a plausible case for Woolf’s association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers an insight into and critique of Woolf’s incredibly rare Stories from the East, three brilliantly revealing short pieces relating to his time in Ceylon that have previously only been available in a 1921 Hogarth Press edition limited to 300 copies (expensive!), or as an appendix to the improbably entitled Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911: Records of a Colonial Administrator, being the Official Diaries maintained by Leonard Woolf while Assistant Government Agent of the Hambantota District, Ceylon … ; & Stories from the East: Three Short Stories on Ceylon , available as a paperback only, and after considerable effort, in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf’s acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf’s five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind’s relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.

But, sexual awakening aside, the real issue and defining characteristic of Woolf’s Ceylon years – something that was to serve him well in later life – was his punishing work ethic: his ability to ‘stick at it’ was to effect his meteoric rise to influence in Ceylon. He did the work of his superiors in Jaffna, organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford (the acting Governor of Ceylon and a notorious ladies’ man), and was rewarded with the job of Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf’s efficiency and industry in the dry, south-eastern Hambantota district resulted in its becoming the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.

Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf’s strange courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also observant on Lytton Strachey’s influence on the couple’s early relationship, as well as on the sensitive issue of Virginia’s sexual abuse as a child by her elder half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth (published posthumously in Sketches of the Past). These passages illuminate the loving but sexless marriage between two of the most influential figures in Edwardian literary circles.

The text of Woolf in Ceylon could easily stand on its own, but the inclusion of more than sixty photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the twentieth century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, add real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author’s own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka, which serve to broaden the book’s appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today’s reader a much clearer understanding of why his importance goes way beyond simply being Mr Virginia Woolf.

To find out more about Christopher Ondaatje’s books visit http://www.ondaatje.com

Nick Smith reviews Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ in September 2009 edition of Bookdealer

August 26, 2009

Revelling in the Reeperbahn

Nick Smith reviews a new edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’

It’s been a busy time of late for James Bond aficionados. There’s been the release of the latest movie Quantum of Solace as well as Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, apparently the last ever Bond novel. The latter was published last year on 28th May, on what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, and the Queen Anne Press brought out a sumptuous 18-volume centenary edition of the author’s complete works at the same time.

For those not suffering from Fleming fatigue, wondering if there’s a little something left in the tank, there are reissues of two of Fleming’s works of journalism: The Diamond Smugglers, a piece of investigative journalism that penetrates the world of international gem trafficking, and Thrilling Cities, thirteen essays of travel writing, urban portraiture commissioned by the Sunday Times exactly 50 years ago. Of the two Thrilling Cities is by modern standards the better book, and there will be travel editors up and down the land tearing their hair out that they neither have the budget nor a sufficiently imaginative publisher to allow for the commission of a series of such sustained brilliance as this.

Despite being overlooked by collectors – you can get a decent UK first for around £100 (compare that with, say Thunderball) – Thrilling Cities is Fleming at his best. There are a few negative comments to make about it because any collection of newspaper articles bundled up for publication, as a book will suffer from inconsistencies and repetitions. And although it is tempting to say that Ian Fleming Publications could have produced an edition with more critical apparatus and textual analysis, at the end of the day we’re dealing with journalism that was – no matter how good – of its day. To me at least the most important concern is that we’re presented with the unexpurgated versions of Fleming’s essays. He rather revels in the strip clubs, topless mud wrestling and red light districts of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and so would have been peeved to have found these details hacked out by assiduous sub-editors working under a nervous editor’s instructions.

Another problem with reproducing newspaper journalism is with the contractual obligation stuff that all travel hacks have to (quite often against their will) include. There will be nightclubs that have given you a smashing night out, restaurants that have killed the fatted calf, as well as airlines and hotels that have upgraded you to both seats and suites bigger than your house. All this has to be paid for with name checks and superlatives. Despite having bought a round-the-world air ticket for £803 19s. 2d. and having drawn £500 in travellers’ cheques from the Chief Accountant, Fleming is no exception to this time-honoured barter system and there are times when his (often very amusing) ‘Incidental Intelligence’ notes extend to several pages, as with New York.

By contrast there is no incidental intelligence relating to Monte Carlo, the last thrilling city in the series. Maybe this is not that much of a discrepancy, as the essay on Monte Carlo is so lacking in local colour of any description it is hard to believe that Fleming ever even went there, at least for this commission. Some early editions of Thrilling Cities have the so-called ‘lost Bond story’ – ‘007 in New York’ – appended to the New York essay, but this reprint doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s not well-known and this edition might have benefitted from its inclusion.

Fleming’s journey is divided into two series: the first is a truly global jet-setting affair, with the second a rather glamorous blast around Europe in his seven-litre Thunderbird, which he tells us is ‘very comfortable, roomy, and as quick as hell.’ And off he went leaving ‘humdrum London’ not because he could see much literary merit in the enterprise but because he wanted to ‘see the world, however rapidly, while it was still there to see.’

Anyone expecting Fleming to be a fish out of water in the travel genre will be sorely disappointed. He’s a terrific journalist and travel writer whose observations are blunt, colourful, patriotic and at times reassuringly elitist. Hard for us to imagine now of course, but at the time you could only do journeys like this if you were the creator of James Bond with a seemingly unlimited license to travel. This license came from Leonard Russell, Features and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, who in October 1959 ‘came up with the idea that I should make a round trip of the most exciting cities of the world and describe them in beautiful, beautiful prose.’

Of the 14 cities Fleming visits I’ve been to only four, which in itself says much about what cities were thrilling then and are no longer now. The way in which European travel has changed over the past half a century means that many of the places Fleming visits are now industrialised clichés where you might stop in order to change plane while heading for somewhere thrilling in Africa (a continent studiously avoided by Fleming). Having said that, the shared experience is important because it shows just how good he is at grasping the essential character of the city.

Even so we’re worlds apart: I can honestly say that I’ve never stayed at the house of the most powerful English taipan (‘big shot’) while in Hong Kong. Likewise, in many visits to New York I’ve never dined where it’s necessary to tip the headwaiter $50 simply to get a table and wouldn’t know where to. While in Hamburg I’ve certainly been to gigantic Bavarian beer halls, my head half blown off by brass bands, but I’ve never found places where ‘you can enjoy really hot jazz.’ In Geneva I’ve paid ten pounds for a fried egg and yet never encountered a single occasion where a working knowledge of the anonymously numbered banking account system has been absolutely necessary.

Fleming’s world is swanky and suave – just like James Bond – and the reason his cities are thrilling is simply that he seeks out what the guidebooks omit. Doors fling themselves open before his fame and charisma, both a better passport than a passport. But at other times the thrills turn into grief simply too hard to bear. He leaves Berlin without regret: ‘From this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1917 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother.’ For all these quite unexpected personal reflections, Jan Morris is entirely correct when she says in her introduction to this new edition of Thrilling Cities that as P.G.Wodehouse is to the comic novel so is Ian Fleming to the thriller. His travel journalism is wonderfully flashing, humorous and quick as hell. Those who through over-familiarity with the Bond novels have grown tired of Fleming should get hold of a copy of this marvelous edition of Thrilling Cities and have their faith restored.

Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ is published by Ian Fleming Publications, £15.00 · ISBN 978-1 -906772-00-0

Nick Smith regularly writes travel features for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award

To find out more about Bookdealer magazine visit http://www.bookdealer.org.uk/

Nick Smith’s exclusive interview with Buzz Aldrin – ‘Out of this world’ – taken from E&T magazine

August 13, 2009

Out of this world

Not only was NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon one of the great voyages of exploration of the 20th Century, but it was also one of the greatest collaborative feats of engineering co-ordination. Nick Smith, spoke with Buzz Aldrin about how the project got off the ground…

On 20th July 1969, when the first men stepped on the moon, mankind had finally achieved its ambition of reaching another celestial body. Mr Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force, as the New York Times of the day described them, had managed to bring their ship to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility.

It was one of the great human stories of the 20th Century, a measure of how far we had come. But it was also a technical story; a story of how computer coordinated re-entry and rendezvous had made space travel and an all–too-brief walk on the moon possible.

It’s now forty years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history, and although NASA and other bodies have since made great strides in space exploration, there seems to be a lack of political will to get back out into space. Although we regularly go into Earth’s orbit, many, including Aldrin, believe that the real mission before us is today is to find a way to get men on Mars.

As a fighter pilot serving in Korea, and with a career in the military, Buzz was an all-American hero even before becoming an astronaut. By the time he’d been into space with the Gemini programme and then actually set foot on the moon, he was seen by the world as superman. But despite the universal adulation, Buzz Aldrin was a troubled man.

While some have mid-life crises, Aldrin went into meltdown. Today we tend to think of what happened to him as a combination of ill health and bad luck. But in the 1970s the military wouldn’t tolerate mental illness such as depression, and to admit to being a sufferer meant curtains for any further career development. Moreover, Buzz was what we now call a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, meaning that while he was perpetually locked in mortal combat with alcohol, he could (and did) at least attempt to keep his career on track with a degree of success.

Unfortunately, the problem for Aldrin was that he wasn’t able to star in a career befitting a moonwalker, and as his new book Magnificent Desolation explains, back then merely being a celebrity didn’t pay the bills. He was dogged by ‘Status versus income disequilibrium syndrome’, which meant that while he was invited to the most elevated of social occasions that America could offer, by day he had been reduced to selling second-hand cars.

Things started to look up when, in his fifties, he married banking heiress Lois Driggs Cannon. This turn of events provided him with the opportunity to clean up his act, and he has now been sober for three decades. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, and in the recession of the 1990s Mrs Aldrin’s financial affairs took a turn for the worst, leaving them (by their standards at least) penniless.

Resolved to work his way out of his newfound poverty, Aldrin became a ‘freelance astronaut’, and ever since he has devoted his life to touring the world advising governments, the aerospace industry and the public on what is needed to get space exploration moving again. Outspoken, opinionated and sometimes a thorn in the side of the establishment, Aldrin is renowned for talking to those who will listen. Especially about technology…

Engineering & Technology magazine:  Apollo 11 has been called one of the greatest collaborative ventures of the 20th century. Do you think that this is true and can you describe, 40 years on, the sheer scale of the technical coordination required to land a craft on the moon and bring it home to Earth?

Buzz Aldrin: It certainly was a cardinal event. Apollo 11 will probably go down in history as one of the major responses of two nations facing each other with threatening technologies – sometimes called mutually assured destruction. It was also our response to the apparent superiority of the Russians in putting objects into space before we could. Both nations gave assurances to each other that it wasn’t going to be just dogs and monkeys, but it was also going to be humans. And in the case of the US, it was going to be very out in the open. I think the Russians responded to that by realising that they needed to be more open with what they were doing. Even though they launched and recovered well inside their boundaries and didn’t necessarily need to expose a lot of the technology, they became more open about what they were doing.

In the US we were faced with the question of who was going to carry this out, and the Navy’s Vanguard mission was chosen. When this didn’t succeed – the Atlas missiles were blowing up on the launch pad – the army then brought in its Explorer satellite programme and matched what the Russians had done with Sputnik. Then it became clear that humans were going into space and it also became clear that we weren’t progressing with Atlas as we had hoped. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin shocked the world by becoming the first man in space and the best response we had – less than a month later – was a sub orbital flight.

But then shortly after that I guess the world was surprised by Kennedy’s announcement about going to the moon.

E&T: Did you have any sense that the technology was ready for this, or did you think ‘this is way too ambitious’?

Buzz: There was still a long way to go with the not-so-successful launches of the Atlas and other rockets. But I think we charted a course at that time. As I reflect back on it from where we are now, we had two features that assisted with the transition from not having a space programme to reaching the moon – flexibility and continuity. When the President said we were going to the moon, the air force had already been studying missions to the moon – including manned flight – so it wasn’t a totally unexplored area. And we had a unity of purpose that was missing in the Soviet Union. The Russians at the time really had two space programmes competing with each other. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have alternate ways of accomplishing something. But when we said we were going to the moon we also had a Mercury programme and an Apollo programme, and we realised we couldn’t stretch one until the other started flying. And so we filled the gap and retained continuity between the two with the very ambitious and successful Gemini programme that accomplished long-duration flight, computer-controlled re-entry, space walking and rendezvous.

E&T: The computers of the time. It’s passed into urban legend that there is more computing power on your mobile phone now than there was on these missions. Is that true? How much computing power was there? What did the computers do, and how much computing power was there back at mission control?

Buzz: (Laughs) I can’t quantitatively give you the numbers, but there was no way you could possibly have had any kind of mechanical calculator and made the corrections needed to be able to get to the moon. Our computers gave us the sophistication of the mathematical smoothing techniques for the equations of motion and the perturbations. We were able to squeeze out of limited capacity some very, very remarkable achievements. We chose to use humans to execute and aid things like re-entry, final closure breaking and docking manoeuvres. We made use of the humans there, rather than try to automate everything and I think we made wise decisions when exploring how to do these things.

E&T: How important is it to have flexibility in developing your approach to solving huge collaborative efforts such as Apollo 11?

Buzz: We had the flexibility when the President said to go to the moon to look at the Nova rocket that was just on paper and wouldn’t be ready until 1970, as well as and two Saturn Vs that were the legacy of Werner Von Braun. But then an engineer came along and said: ‘wait a minute. If we optimise here and there, shed a little weight and send two more specialised spacecraft to the moon we can make do with just one Saturn V. One will land and the other will be available to take people home that doesn’t make the landing manoeuvre an operational asset’. And of course now this is the obvious way of going to the moon, instead of direct there and direct back. These were wise decisions. The Russians looked at other short cuts that we didn’t evaluate very much. We chose flexibility.

E&T: In 2004 George W Bush, then president of the United States, announced a goal for US astronauts to return to the moon by 2020. What are your views on that?

Buzz: That doesn’t impress me too much. Going back to the moon 50 years after we went there in the last century, without having a clear development plan for what we were going to do – other than to say it is a rehearsal for when we go to Mars – doesn’t make much sense. As a project, going to Mars is quite a bit different, much more advanced, and I think we ought to be much more about doing that.

My schedule says if we economise on certain areas and develop what we really need to develop, we can get to Mars by 2031. But we really need to get to a moon of Mars by 2025 first. And that I think we can do, but we can’t do that and go to our moon as well. We should leave that to other nations and encourage them to accept our advice, consultation and assistance and let them experience the development issues associated with going to the moon.

E&T: What are the issues politically or technically that might prevent this? Also, what you achieved 40 years ago… if you hadn’t done it then, would it be possible to do it now?

Buzz: Well sure it’s possible. I’m not really in a position to weigh that personally, but I do think that some of the consolidations in the industry have restricted innovation and new ideas, and the overheads have gone up as well as other costs plus contracting. And then there are changes that mean that we’re not making maximum use of what we’ve previously developed.

E&T: So, do you think these are potential threats to going to Mars by 2031?

Buzz: Yes. If we continue to develop two different launch vehicles, Aries I and Aries V we can go to Mars by a different way. But if we think we can do it by going to the Moon in 2025 it’s going to take a whole lot of time to transition away from the moon to Mars … I think in the US we have lost a tremendous investment in leadership.

E&T: Here in the UK it is often said that we need something or someone really inspirational to attract new talent into the science, engineering and technology (SET) sector. Can you describe what effect Apollo 11 missions and the Lunar Ladings had on the youth of that time?

Buzz: All sorts of people from engineers to airline pilots say it was the Apollo programme and the expansion into new and different technological adventures that inspired them. That can exist again – but I don’t see it as clearly now, because a lot of things can be done by robots as they increase in capability.

E&T: What role will robots play in our efforts to get to Mars, and do you think that they will do away with the need to send humans into space?

Buzz: We can control robots pretty well at the space station, but we need human experience. Once we factor in human experience, robots are much more effective, especially when they are using somebody else’s ability to fix things and do the human housekeeping efforts as they learn how to operate in low-earth orbit. The same thing can apply to the moon: robotic efforts can determine which development industries’ products and activities can be sufficiently productive to justify the big investment in maintaining human habitation. After we’ve experienced that and are in a position to expand our human habitation to fly-by comets, to station-keep with asteroids, to look at asteroids that could possibly threaten us, then we can begin to use human intelligence at a moon of Mars (much safer) to control robots on the surface in real time and assemble items necessary for occupancy on the surface. But to go direct to the surface would be a great mistake. The more prudent way is to make an incremental commitment to a pathway first that can clearly lead toward permanence at Mars and then reinforcing that commitment with resources at a later date. But not on the surface. The great cost in sending people there is not returned if you bring them back after two, three or four trips. You need a certain critical number of people to develop the resources to become self-sustaining. Think about the pilgrims on the Mayflower who left your jolly land to come over and establish a colony here. They didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for the return trip. But this an adjustment to how we think of human beings participating in space flight. They go somewhere, they do their thing, they turn around and then they come back.

E&T: Are you optimistic that this will happen?

Buzz: I think we have to make a decision one way or another to re-evaluate the destination, and who’s going to do what. Not everybody can do everything over and over again and I think co-operative ventures don’t gain much by simply being a race to the end. Maybe a race to develop something better, that we can do something with, so then you decide whose rocket is better, whose spacecraft is better and you can consolidate your efforts there. We haven’t got to the point where we have the luxury of dual competing efforts.

E&T: Looking back on Apollo 11, what have we learned from that great voyage of exploration 40 years ago?

Buzz: Apollo 11’s legacy is one of significant investment and pioneering effort that achieved a new degree of sophistication in leadership, technology advance and reliability that has become the pattern for how to do these things. But we need to keep doing that and we need to keep draining minds in order to keep doing new innovative things. We can’t just keep recreating the same thing over and over again. But then, we don’t want to terminate good operable machines like the Saturn V prematurely and venture out on something that may not live up to its expectations. There’s a great temptation to claim that something can do a great deal more than it may actually do. And then we have to pay the price of increasing costs.

E&T: What do you think you’ll be feeling personally on the anniversary? Apollo 11 must have dramatically changed your life?

Buzz: For sure Apollo 11 changed my life. But each individual has their lives changed by different events. I had to turn my life around at a very crucial point of transition at the age of 45-50. What I knew about was the future of space, but not being affiliated with a big company that made it kind of difficult to do all those things. So I started projecting, talking, discussing and designing future improvements and learning. It’s in my blood to want to look at better ways of doing things. Several of us engineers were 15 years ahead in looking at reusable booster rockets, ejectable pods and spacecraft that could come back and land. But those things just didn’t seem to meet the fancy of what the air force, the military or NASA wanted, but it seems to be getting a whole lot closer now. I’m just not sure that we have the right destination and I’m not sure that we have the right means of carrying it out. But there are so many political and business contractual activities, that it may seem evident that it needs reevaluation when things don’t seem to be working out quite the way we hoped. There’s this attitude: ‘Don’t change what we’re doing – let’s keep with it – right or wrong – let’s do what we said we’re going to do.’

E&T: How important in a project such as Apollo 11 are the qualities of leadership and the ability to work as a team? How highly do you rate these managerial skills?

Buzz: In forming an organisation we looked around to try to find out where to get the talent we needed. Some of it came from Canada because they had some cancelled programmes. A good bit of it came from military leadership. Of course internationally we made use of some of the German technology and used a pattern of development that they seemed to be able to contribute. That worked out well. There were significant leaders in industry that banded together, and instead of trying to win all the contracts they just took what came out. There was more than enough for everyone involved. Everybody got a reasonable piece of the action, and it all came together in a very well managed, integrated way. When it came to testing and advancing the testing so that we could progress to what we called ‘all up’ testing, a lot of people had to get a lot of things together at the same time.

E&T: You’ve got a new book out at the moment – Magnificent Desolation: the Long Journey Home from the Moon – can you tell us a bit about how that came to be written…

Buzz: One theme is the evolution of change from short-term thinking about the details of future space modifications to an even bigger picture of what is our destiny and how we should go about preserving the investments we have made. Going to the moon was pretty much an American event. We started out the Space station and the Space Shuttle in that direction, made it international, but not quite free and open. We need to change these things regarding the moon and help other nations to catch up with us, while we pioneer what we are able to do in the pursuit of US leadership in the technology of aerospace that allows us to pursue science in outer space.

E&T: So you think that the future of space exploration can be a unifying thing in terms of international political harmony?

Buzz: Certainly. It can also be an increasing irritant unless we begin to make efforts to open up and understand. We need to set a boundary for what will happen in space, say once you get past 100km. Certain things will happen on the surface of the earth to do with conflict, human rights, piracy and we’ll need to deal with those down here. But in space for the betterment of many, many people, we’d like not to see communications technology encroached upon.

E&T: Thank you

Buzz Aldrin: A great pleasure.

A Trio Triumphant: Where are they now?

On July 20, it will be 40 years since Apollo 11 astronauts—Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins—reached the Moon, with Armstrong and Aldrin walking on its desolate regolith.

In the years since, Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, 79, has remained a staunch advocate for space exploration, particularly in the realm of private space ventures, which includes his own rocket design company, Starcraft Boosters. More recently, he launched the ShareSpace Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing education and affordable access to space, one of several new entities now operated under the aegis of Buzz Aldrin Enterprises.

Collins, 78, who has remained rather circumspect when it comes to his critical role as pilot of the command module Columbia, has chosen a quieter life, retiring to the Florida Everglades after directorship of the National Air and Space Museum and involvement in several private space companies. There, he has authored several critically acclaimed space-related books and indulged in his love of watercolors.

Mission commander Armstrong, 78, who saw no need to return to space after Apollo 11, chose instead to pursue his passion for teaching at the University of Cincinnati, near his Ohio home. In addition to serving on the corporate boards of several companies, including booster-rocket manufacturer Thiokol, Armstrong has remained committed to aerospace education. He recently donated his space-related papers to his alma mater, Purdue University, an institution with a long history of producing candidates for the American space program.

Whether staying in the limelight, fostering an interest in aeronautical engineering for the next generation, or enjoying more leisurely pursuits, all three have campaigned for a “return to the glory days of the space program,” particularly when it comes to the exploration of Mars. Aldrin has gone so far as to devise a spacecraft system known as the Aldrin Mars Cycler, which, he contends, could remain in perpetual orbit between Earth and Mars. For Collins, it is Mars and only Mars that should be our current space focus. In terms of time and money, he says, further exploration of the Moon could be “a bottomless pit.” When asked if he might be up for a journey to Mars, Armstrong has said simply, “I am available.”

Time travellers

Omega is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing with a replica of its Speedmaster ‘Moon Watch’, as worn by Buzz Aldrin

When it comes to pushing back the frontiers of human achievement, landmark years don’t come much bigger than 1969. British explorer Wally Herbert and his team of Arctic scientists were conquering the North Pole on foot, while Robin Knox-Johnston was becoming the first person to sail single-handedly, non-stop around the world. But the off-world activities of NASA’s Apollo 11 space mission outshone these terrestrial endeavours, as a trio of American astronauts fulfilled their late president John F Kennedy’s dream of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’

On July 20th 1969 the Lunar Module Eagle landed lightly on the moon’s powdery surface after a protracted descent. Following technical checks and preliminary contact with Mission Control the ceremony began. As the Eagle’s hatch opened and Neil Armstrong stepped out, 600 million watched the events unfold on their TV sets. A static glitch in the audio transmission muffled a vital syllable of the most famous line delivered in space, ensuring it will be debated and misquoted for evermore. ‘That’s one small step for a man’ is what Neil Armstrong actually said before delivering the historic payoff: ‘one giant leap for mankind.’

What is beyond doubt is that the time was 02:56 GMT exactly. Armstrong led the way, and Buzz Aldrin followed wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional wristwatch. Armstrong had taken the precaution of leaving his chronograph aboard the Lunar Module as a backup to the electronic timing system, which had not been functioning correctly. Armstrong was right in thinking that his timepiece was one that could be relied upon.

In NASA tests the Speedmaster had withstood temperature fluctuations of over 100°C, shocks of 40g, acceleration of 16g – twice that of a fighter pilot. After two years strenuously testing models from different manufacturers NASA was left with an easy decision – the Speedmaster was the only contestant still in one piece. This famous chronograph was later to get Apollo 13 out of a jam when astronaut Jim Lovell used his to time the firing of the re-entry rockets after a power failure had knocked out the onboard electronics. It’s easy to see why Armstrong put so much faith in his.

To commemorate the Lunar Landing, watchmaker Omega has announced the release of the Speedmaster Professional Apollo 11 ‘40th Anniversary’ Limited Edition, or ‘moonwatch’. Powered by the same movement Omega used four decades ago and fitted with the same Hesalite crystal – a man-made shatterproof material ideal for low-gravity environments – this replica watch is almost exactly what Buzz and his friends were sporting on their wrists back in the late Sixties.

And yet a few neat additions distinguish it from the original, such as the inclusion of the legend ‘02:56 GMT’ in red on the dial beneath the maker’s mark, while the stainless steel body design has been updated to make it even more durable. The Apollo 11 Eagle ‘mission patch’ is stamped on the back along with the words ‘The first watch worn on the moon’. Other information on the back includes the timepiece’s production limitation. But don’t worry: with the edition limited to 7,969 there should be plenty to go around.

Delivered in a black presentation box with a certificate of authenticity, the Moon Watch is accompanied by a 42mm silver medal bearing the mission patch again. Michael Collins, the third member of the crew – who never made it to the moon’s surface – designed this famous logo of a bald eagle with an olive branch in its beak, symbolising NASA’s ‘we come in peace’ mission statement. While Aldrin and Armstrong conducted scientific experiments, Collins was at the controls of the orbiting Command Module Columbia, counting the minutes until he was reunited with his colleagues, mission accomplished.

Men Walk on Moon – how the New York Times saw it

The following is an extract from the front page of the New York Times, Monday, July 21, 1969…

Houston, Monday, July 21 – Men have landed and walked on the moon. Two Americans, astronauts of Apollo 11, steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly to the historic landing yesterday at 4:17:40 P.M., Eastern daylight time. Neil A. Armstrong, the 38-year-old civilian commander, radioed to earth and the mission control room here: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The first men to reach the moon – Mr Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force – brought their ship to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility. About six and a half hours later, Mr. Armstrong opened the landing craft’s hatch, stepped down the ladder and declared as he planted the first human footprint on the lunar crust: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

His first step on the moon came at 10:56:20 P.M. as a television camera outside the craft transmitted his every move to an awed and excited audience of hundreds of millions of people on earth…

The ultimate gastronaut

When NASA initiated their space programme they soon started cooking up ideas for foods that astronauts could bring on spaceflights. The food needed to last without being refrigerated and not weigh too much. One of the more inventive ideas was to freeze-dry food, which removes almost all the food’s water content. The super-dried food then rehydrates in the astronaut’s mouth. The result was food that could keep for years which weighed almost nothing. Later astronauts were able to use hot water to boost the culinary merit of their space chow. And today’s space station even has a freezer for those hydrated chocolate chip goodies. But for the real freeze-dried McCoy, log on to Astronaut Foods for beef flavoured space dinners and astro-pack ice cream. Visit www.astronautfoods.com

With additional reporting by Angela M H Schuster, Editor of the Explorers Journal, and with thanks to the archivist of the Explorers Club, Dorothea Sartain, who made parts of this article possible.