October 22, 2021

Family and relationships

Lunar orbit

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Supermoon over Footscray. Image © Tim McCartney 2015 (source)

The strange paths taken by the mind when overwhelmed by fear

You probably don’t know this, but there’s a sculpture on the Moon. It’s up there with two golf balls, three buggies and about 100 bags of shit. It’s called Fallen Astronaut, and it lies face down in the Moon dust beside a plaque with the names of 14 dead astronauts and cosmonauts. The artist wanted neither this name nor position for his work, but there’s not much he can do about that now.

Before you begin sceptically considering a space mission’s capacity constraints, or calculating the Saturn V’s payload, you should know that the sculpture is a touch under 9 centimetres long and very light. It’s more of a figurine, really – a plump stick figure – though no self-respecting artist would refer to their work so frivolously. And despite the modesty of its dimensions, it was made to withstand unearthly extremes of temperature.

There were other specifications given to the artist: it could suggest no race or gender, and the acrylic-resin tube, proposed by the artist to transparently embalm the figure, was ruled out by NASA as a fire hazard.

These restraints angered the sculptor, an obscure, modestly gifted, but ambitious Belgian called Paul Van Hoeydonck. The sculpture’s “postman” – as Van Hoeydonck would later bitterly refer to him – was David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, and the seventh man on the Moon. It was 1971, and the penultimate manned voyage to the Moon was imminent. While NASA had successfully designed starships, it was yet to design something that could protect its astronauts from the cocktail overtures of Madison Avenue. With Apollo 15, New York’s art world and admen would insinuate themselves in space. 

NASA agreed with Scott’s idea to place a small, anonymously designed memorial on the Moon to honour fallen astronauts, and to only modestly publicise the fact when they returned. Through boozy intermediaries in the bars of Cape Kennedy, Scott was introduced to Van Hoeydonck. The artist had different ideas: that his design should stand upright, bold and vainglorious, and once planted on the Moon, he fully expected to be celebrated as an interstellar Andy Warhol.

But as much as NASA’s design stipulations frustrated the artist, what really ate him up was the agency’s refusal to commercialise its lunar missions. Scott said that Van Hoeydonck had agreed that his identity would remain unknown; that publicity and profit would degrade a memorial to dead colleagues. Scott had assumed the worth of a handshake, as he had assumed that the unique distinction of Van Hoeydonck’s commission would be sufficiently honouring.

It wasn’t. Angry that he’d been overlooked, his fame neutralised, Van Hoeydonck outed himself on American television as the galaxy’s first featured artist. But no one cared. Later, he began selling replicas, angering Scott and NASA. Lawsuits followed. And still: no one cared.

When your child stops breathing, time dilates. Seconds are experienced as long and hysterical days. There’s a wickedly vivid compression of thoughts – thoughts that mark like a tattooist’s pen; thoughts that I can’t describe here.

She choked. On the food I gave her. I was right beside her. I always am, anxiously tethered like an astronaut on a spacewalk. I knew she’d put too much in. At first, her expression was one of sweet, innocent confusion. Then alarm. Then her faced changed colour. Then there was silence. From her at least. I had her over my knee horizontally, face down, while I called 000. How do I unlock my phone? Do I scream for the neighbours’ help? I was alone, my partner at work. How long did we have?

I slammed her back. Nothing. I slammed again. Nothing. How much force is too much? How much is too little? I thought about the baby first-aid course I took before she was born. I thought about the baby mannequin, its hard plastic. The emergency service was on speaker now. “Don’t hit her back,” they said. I wondered how I’d managed to make contact with them – did I call them? Of course, I was the only one there.

Only months earlier had I called 000 for the first time. I’d stepped off my tram and found an old lady had fallen, her head split open. Blood was splashed on her bag of grapes. I put pressure on the wound, shielded her from the sun, held her hand. She was in shock; she was repeating herself. A sweet woman. After a while she improved. She wanted to get up; she wanted to go home. I told her an ambulance was on its way, and their advice was to stay here. She obliged. I asked about her life, got her address for the paramedics. 

But what I was thinking about with my daughter over my knee was how long that ambulance for the old lady had taken to arrive: about 45 minutes. I thought, surely they triage? As I held the woman’s hand, they’d asked me a lot of questions – answers to which were surely fed into a system of prioritisation. So maybe this ambulance would be faster? Surely, surely.

It wasn’t needed. I thrust my index finger in her mouth, down her throat and scooped out the food. Was that all of it? It didn’t seem like enough. But she was screaming now – a good sign. I went back in, scooped out some more. The cats pounced and ate it, their casual obliviousness both obscene and funny.

I was holding my daughter’s hand now. She recovered quickly. I didn’t. Paramedics called me again, and falteringly I told them I didn’t think they were needed anymore. But I could barely speak. I was shaking, crying, while my daughter was asking for a book. Unlike the cats, her obliviousness was cherished. How much time had passed? I couldn’t tell you. After my partner returned from work, I spent much of the afternoon trembling and experiencing sudden bursts of weeping.

Around this time, I emailed the sculptor, Van Hoeydonck. He replied and said he’d happily take questions by email. I sent a bunch, but never heard back. Subsequent prompts went unanswered. I suspect the questions weren’t sufficiently deferential, that they were more interested in mapping his ego than his achievement. But I don’t know.

Around the same time, I also emailed Charlie Duke – one of only four men alive to have walked on the Moon. He was the youngest, in fact, to do so, and worked in mission control when Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins made their historic voyage. Those famous words to the lunar module after they’d landed on the surface – “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.” – were Duke’s.

By his own admission, Duke was a cold, greedy and ambitious man, and his family had suffered from it. In those years, his wife had contemplated both divorce and suicide. Up on the Moon, along with the sculpture and buggies and bags of shit, is a laminated photo of Duke’s family, the one that had barely survived his ambitions, though the portrait would have long ago been bleached white.

After his return, Duke found God – he was a late but passionate convert – and he cites His guidance for having saved his marriage. I wanted to ask him about God, and how he had since reconceptualised what he had seen up there. After the choking incident, such questions had assumed an inexplicable importance to me.

Duke replied, suggesting he’d be happy to chat. I was ecstatic – one reason was the thought that, one day, when there were no more men alive who had walked on the Moon, I could tell my (hopefully) astonished daughter that I had spoken with one. I suggested some dates but, as with Van Hoeydonck, heard nothing more. I ordered books by the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, and read academic papers on astronauts’ experience of the sublime. I wrote a short story about an astronaut who becomes untethered on a spacewalk but is remotely linked to his wife and daughter as he drifts, his oxygen ebbing. I read pages and pages of NASA transcripts, repeatedly played The Long Winters’ song “The Commander Thinks Aloud” about the Columbia shuttle disaster, and insisted my daughter come outside on clear evenings to marvel at the Moon and the stars.  

And then, after a few months, the obsession largely evaporated – replaced with a bemusement about the strange form my trauma had assumed.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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