Tuesday 20 August 2019

A-listers, astronauts and Nasa's Irish 'Kid'

A space reporter at just 17, Leo Enright recalls the drama of the last moonshot, and how he came to know the Apollo astronauts

History makers: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin with their Saturn V rocket in the background
History makers: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin with their Saturn V rocket in the background
'What do you do?' US broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite

The first party I was ever thrown out of was in Cape Canaveral - and I wasn't even drunk. Some of the astronauts I was drinking with were very, very drunk, but I wasn't drunk.

The story began in Middle Abbey Street, in the office of legendary Irish Independent news editor Bill Shine. I was 17 years old, with barely six months to go until my Leaving Cert exams, but with an obsession to witness Apollo first-hand. I had saved for years by odd-jobbing, and was determined to see the last moonshot for myself. Bill, bless 'im, indulged me with a letter of credence for Nasa: I was to be the Irish Independent's first Space Correspondent and (I believe) the youngest foreign news correspondent ever accredited by the US government - a record that I believe I still hold to this day.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

My official Nasa press pass (stamped Irish Independent) got me to within three miles of the huge Saturn rocket as it blasted off for the Moon in 1972. I have seen more than a hundred rocket launches since, but absolutely nothing - not even the mighty Space Shuttle - compares to the extraordinary power of that behemoth. The Earth shook violently and my chest was repeatedly punched with shockwaves from the huge rocket, which was almost twice as tall as Dublin's Liberty Hall.

Anyone who claims that the missions were faked obviously never witnessed astronauts leaving for the Moon.

'What do you do?' US broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite
'What do you do?' US broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite

In those days, a Nasa launch was bigger than the Oscars, and the Time-Life parties were bigger than the post-Oscar parties. Everybody was there. Hollywood actors, TV stars, the vice president - and in this case a young kid from Dublin.

I met more famous astronauts in the space of two hours than most people meet in an entire lifetime. In this surreal atmosphere, I barely noticed the Hollywood stars (I seem to recall chatting to Paul Newman) and I certainly had no idea who nearly all the other people were. And then I met Walter Cronkite, the legendary news anchorman for CBS television. To understand why Cronkite is important, you must first understand that RTÉ's Kevin O'Kelly was Ireland's voice of Apollo. There was not a single person in Ireland who did not know of O'Kelly. In America, Cronkite was a legend, one of the greatest journalists of his generation.

Back in Florida, this Irish kid had only ever heard of O'Kelly. So when someone invited me to meet Cronkite, I had no clue who they were talking about. I shook the hand of the great man and said: "Hello Mr Cronkite, what do you do?" At that moment two very large security men lifted me up by my arms and carried me swiftly to the exit. Anyone who had never heard of Cronkite was obviously a lunatic.

After the launch from Florida, control of the Apollo missions switched immediately to Houston (the foundation of political support for America's space programme is the way that money is distributed to many states).

After the drama and glamour of Florida, the control centre complex in Houston had more of the atmosphere of a university campus. Controllers hunched over their computer displays, looking for all the world like mediaeval Irish monks working on their illuminated manuscripts.

As a member of the pool (only one journalist is allowed in at any time, so they report as "pool" for everybody), I spent long hours in the very Mission Control Room that guided Neil Armstrong on to the surface of the Moon, but because I was "The Kid", I only got to cover the quiet hours. It is astonishing how mundane a flight to the Moon can be sometimes.

And, of course, I got to meet the astronauts. Over the years I got to know every single one of the men who set foot on the Moon.

Some of them were grumpy (Alan Shepard, Apollo 14 commander), some of them really hated journalists (John Young, Apollo 16), some of them were nice but a little odd (Ed Mitchell, pilot, Apollo 14), and some of them would do absolutely anything for you (Charlie Duke, Apollo 16). Duke is the man who calmly talked Neil and Buzz down to the lunar surface: "You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again."

Armstrong himself is the hardest to write about, because in so many ways he was the deepest. When I think of him, I often think of Seamus Heaney. Seamus was fiercely proud that he was a teacher, and that feeling never left him. Neil turned his back on celebrity (and so the media called him a hermit), but all he wanted to do was become a teacher.

At the University of Cincinnati, he lectured for the rest of his life. He once told me that the strangest part of being the first man on the Moon was that students told him they had read about him in their history books.

But the great legacy of Armstrong and those who followed him was the science. Researchers like Denis O'Sullivan at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies were able to begin unravelling the history of the Moon from the samples returned by Neil and Buzz Aldrin.

That early work led to the first Irish experiment being landed on the surface of the Moon in 1972, aboard Apollo 16. It was designed by O'Sullivan and his colleague Alex Thomson. The experiment was built in Dublin by Jerry Daly, and the analysis was made possible by Emer Kee, Dinah Molloy, and Hilary O'Donnell.

Isn't it time we remembered Ireland's 'Hidden Figures'?

The broadcaster Leo Enright is a former Governor of the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and is writing 'An illustrated History of the Irish Space Programme'

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News