Were the astronauts of the 1960s human pioneers or Cold War warriors? Were they unflinching heroes or fall guys for their political masters? There may be something of all of that in their story. But undoubtedly the prevailing narrative has been one of stoical men strapped into tin boxes and flung into an adventure whose dangers and discomforts most of us could barely imagine. In this legend, they are often wrapped in the colours of the Stars and Stripes or the Red Flag. Yet they’re also mantled by the mystique of having travelled into the great dark of space. A glamour clung to the Apollo astronauts, who were mythologised before they even flew. Icarus-like, they lived hard and dabbled with mortality. They were assumed to embody the Right Stuff, a masculinity scorched and tested by these ultimate voyages into the unknown.

The mythology of the Apollo era is teased apart in the first section of our Uncharted Constellations anthology, titled Moon Warriors. James Worrad’s flash fiction, + 1, is steeped in the atmosphere of Sixties America. As ‘the man from NASA’ arrives in a remote Southern town to inspect a downed space capsule, there are echoes of the tragedy of Apollo 1, (even though that craft caught fire during a routine training exercise).

‘They made their way over the scorched ground. Seeing the blackened capsule again, Walter remembered pulling the astronaut out from its torn shell. His spacesuit had been perfectly white … It had taken all Walter’s strength to pull the corpse from that cramped space. Somehow, he’d felt like a midwife.’

                                                                                                 (+1 , James Worrad)

Yet while Worrad’s story conjures up the heroism of a fallen warrior, its ending swerves to deliver a sucker punch that upends such notions. It leaves the narrator, and reader, reeling.

Credit: NASA History Division

Of course, the Soviet program had made a point of selecting a man of humble background for their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, and a civilian factory worker as their first and only female cosmonaut of the period. But these figures were deployed in a Cold War game of one-up-man-ship by Khrushchev. The Premier had discovered he could alarm and humiliate America over an apparent ‘technology lag’ compared to those daring Soviet space ‘firsts’. For all that, Gagarin was a hugely popular figure on the world tour his political masters afterwards dispatched him on. And too precious in propaganda terms to ever be allowed to fly into space again. Deborah Tyler-Bennett captures both the glamour and wistfulness of the grounded cosmonaut in her poem:

‘Gagarin dropped in Dublin by the fates:

… pale face blossoming, a dying star.

… His future grates,

beckoning desk jobs slam like closing gates.’

(Yuri Gagarin in Dublin, Deborah Tyler-Bennett)

We have explored in this blog before why Apollo’s astronauts were all men, and white military men at that. NASA required these credentials for the space theatre they were crafting. Much of the state funding for NASA’s unprecedented budget was coming from Southern states, and while Kennedy’s administration pushed for a ‘black astronaut’, institutional racism buried that ambition. NASA set a rule that all astronauts selected must be fighter pilots – which largely ruled out a roster of female trainees who were outstripping their Mercury colleagues. We have to remember too that the perils that early astronauts faced paled somewhat alongside the mortality rate of fighter pilots during the Vietnam War. Some of the Apollo wives were quite relieved when their husbands were selected for the space program.

Credit: NASA

‘They watched as the ghostly shape of a man, shimmering and distorted by a huge encumbrance on his back, seemed to slide awkwardly and in slow motion across the screen.’

In this story, Rob Bray’s protagonist is a young student watching the lunar landing of 1969 on TV with his Scottish landlady. Clutching a tumbler of whisky, she is gripped by the drama but still manages to advise him on a tricky personal dilemma that rumbles in the background. He evidently feels the burden of living up to the Armstrong model of stoic masculinity, as he navigates his future marriage and 9-5 desk-job.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t be what she wants me to be. Can’t live her way.”

(One Small Step, Rob Bray)

Yet Richard Urwin’s hero is inspired by the very same historical moment to undertake a daring adventure of his own. A schoolboy cycles off on his bike across the Moon’s surface in the middle of the night – just as his lunar colony prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first lunar landing:

‘The bike’s wheels sank only a centimetre into the packed dust. Pedalling was harder than usual but not that difficult… He’d never been out at night before. With no sun to hide them, the stars shone like tiny jewels and overhead the gibbous Earth hung, wispy white and deep blue.’

(Waning Earth, Richard Urwin)

Finally, James Walton’s poem seems to be dusted with moon sand as the poet contemplates an Australian landscape through the hazy filter of space history:

‘In the slow orbit of wombats

my house hangs on to the hill,

the yellow frog flaunts the leaping crimson spinnaker of its jump

to the swallows’ rue at my reflective door,

white lightning shudders in lift off from another unscheduled countdown.’

(Neil Armstrong’s Three Stage Punctuation, James Walton)

You can find out more about all the Hidden Stars of our Uncharted Constellations anthology, by following our Twitterfeed on weekdays throughout August. And you can get to read these wonderful space-themed stories, poems and memoirs when this ebook is released on 13th Sept.