Essays: Bognor, here we come! |
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Bognor, here we come!

45.8°N, 63.4°E. Baikonur Cosmodrome, near Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. Nothingsville. On the bleak steppe stands a lonely A-2 Soyuz launch vehicle, looking like a piece of the Kremlin. Compared with the Type D-1 Proton that lifts the Salyut space-station, Soyuz is a pretty modest rocket, but be grateful for small mercies. Soon we shall all be plugged in to a living thriller: ASTP (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), otherwise known as Big Handshake over Bognor.

Far away at Cape Kennedy, a Saturn 1B leaks misty cryogens. A mere toy when set beside Saturn V (Skylab and the Moon programme), nevertheless it is a typically elegant Von Braunian creation and should propel its Apollo payload with dignity and dispatch to a rendezvous with history. ‘Privyet, Alexei.’ ‘Greetings to you too, Tom.’ Those are the words scheduled to be exchanged through Hatch 3 when Soyuz and Apollo blend clamps. A meeting sufficiently imbued, if not strictly fraught, with interest — but below the shallow histrionics lies a deeper drama. It is taking place in the BBC Space Studio in London, and for those of us fascinated by the destiny of mankind it is the true story. What happens to the five men in the sky seems a foregone conclusion. The real question is how James Burke will perform on the ground.

James ‘Specs’ Burke is no ordinary BBC space front-man. He was there at the beginning when the Space Studio dripped budget and teamed with personnel — about 20 people covered each mission and there was a PhD to make the coffee.

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...specialises in something called ‘East-West Relations.’

In the Space Studio finance is nowadays exiguous all round. The background is a black cyclorama decorated with a cut-out of Earth and a few little bulbs representing stars. The decor is unwontedly short of read-outs, displays, bloops and bleeps. A few quid have been blown on some life-size mock-ups of the ASTP hardware. Burke gets into these and crawls about: there is no one else to do it for him. Already the question looms — can even Burke run a whole mission on his tod?

Tuesday, 1.20 p.m. Baikonur. Soyuz crackles off the pad. We get our first pictures of Soviet Mission Control at Kalinin. The close resemblance to US Mission Control at Houston is startling, but as always there is the characteristic difference — Soviet technology is boiler-plate baroque, American is tinfoil classical. Michael Charlton patches in from Moscow to say that the Russian TV audience is beside itself. If Burke suspects that the same is not true in the West, he isn’t letting on.

8.50 p.m. The Cape. Apollo lifts out. For the first time ever we get pictures from inside the command module while the rocket is on its way up. It looks disappointingly comfortable in there. Chaps lying around like Mark Antony on Cleopatra’s divan. Where are the G-contorted faces beloved by all of us while watching ‘Destination Moon’? Manfully trying to flog some tension into the proceedings, Burke first fiddles with a cheap globe and some dangling models on strings, then disappears suddenly into his mock-up equipment bay and crawls through the celebrated tunnel. ‘This is where the situation, as it were, gets mixed.’ He knows we are all looking forward to ‘what will be a historical handshake over Southern England.’ Reluctantly he signs off. ‘We’ll update you.’ By ‘we’ he means him and Mike.

Wednesday lunchtime I plug in to the ITN Space Studio. The resemblance to the BBC Space Studio is startling, but as always there is the characteristic difference — whereas James ‘Specs’ Burke is deadly serious, Reginald ‘Rugs’ Bosanquet is a bit of a joker. Bosanquet is accompanied by a boffin called Geoffrey Perry, who tells us how to pick up Soyuz voice transmissions on FM 121.75 MHz. Suddenly there is a picture from Apollo. It is of a man’s behind. Peter Fairley says: ‘We are looking at the bottom of “Deke” Slayton.’ Soyuz, in the sky now for 24 hours, is back over Baikonur. Apollo, the Catcher in the Rye, is 3,200 miles behind.

Wednesday, 11.15 p.m. BBC Space Studio. The Last Checkout. Will Burke break a leg in the mock-up? A day and a half into the mission, he moves feverishly. Verbal coherence is down. It is to be hoped that he will recover during the night, while the two spacecraft play tag around the planet. When Apollo caught Daphne she turned into a laurel.

Thursday, 4.40 p.m. BBC1’s Newsround Extra, fronted by John Craven. The subject: Apollo-Soyuz. Reg Turnill is in America crawling about in a mock-up of the Space Shuttle. Back in London, Craven — who works on the mistaken assumption that we will like him better if he shouts louder — shrieks ‘It’s all A-OK, Reg.’ But where’s Burke? Relax: at 5.5 he’s back in vision at the Space Studio, all set to supervise the docking, which is about to take place somewhere over Portugal. This being boringly successful, film is rolled of something more spectacular — Burke being depressurised at Farnborough. Wearing a weirdo helmet, he explains that at 27,000 feet ‘you have to breathe pure oxygen if you’re going to function as normally as I’m functioning now.’ Air hisses out of the tank. The needle soars. Burke looks groggy. Is he in danger? Back to the live transmission. At 5.33 someone smells something burning in Apollo. The Americans’ No.1 nightmare is of Fire in the Aircraft. They once lost three astronauts that way. Abruptly the screws are on for real. But it turns out that the smell is only a TV camera heating up.

Thursday, 7.50 p.m. BBC Space Studio. All Systems Go for the Moment of Truth. It looks as if Burke is going to make it. As the high-level representatives of the Two Different Economic Systems press the flesh over Amsterdam instead of Bognor, Burke is cool and calm. They might forget their dialogue, but he remembers his. Years of training are paying off. Which is lucky, because an additional hazard — partly foreseeable but unexpected in its virulence — is now.threatening to wreck the mission. Boredom. The cosmonauts are fully the equal of the astronauts when it comes to tedious speeches (‘Apollo spacecraft is very good spacecraft. Soyuz space-craft is good spacecraft too. Hah hah hah.’). but neither group of voyagers can hope to parallel the achievements in this field of their respective political bosses, who are now clambering into the act, heavily primed to deliver a few clumsy sentiments on the subject of Detente.

Brezhnev delivers a short but heroically banal lecture concerning the Correctness of the Party’s attitude. The cosmonauts dutifully pretend to look thrilled to bits, but there’s no denying that this kind of thing is a terrific switch-off. Brezhnev is a non-starter, however, compared to President Ford, who it next on the line, with a mind-scrambling improvised speech which goes on and on like a zither solo from a child who has forgotten how to stop. A captive audience in every sense, the astronauts look pole-axed. The cosmonauts, plugged into a translation, are doubly stunned: the Americans have got something duller than Brezhnev! Everybody’s eyelids are growing heavy. The whole mission goes quietly down the drain. Finally only one man is still on the alert — vigilant, visionary, his glasses fixed somewhere in the future where no man has ever gone.

The Observer, 20th July 1975