In the wake of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic mission to the moon, recently de-classified official US documents showed that the moon landing, previously considered an outright success for NASA, had in fact seen ‘an unfortunate moment of forgetfulness in an otherwise meticulously executed operation’ leading to Melvin Haines, the fourth astronaut on the Apollo crew, being left behind on the moon’s surface.
‘It was a moment of high drama when the Eagle finally landed,’ confessed a former NASA senior official, ‘and there was even greater tension as the world waited to see if we could bring our astronauts back home safely. Luckily for us at splashdown amid all the excitement about the historic achievement, nobody picked up on the fact that we’d sent four guys up, but only three guys came back down.’
The error had first been picked up on the return voyage after the lunar unit docked with the orbiting module to head back to Earth. Audio recordings of the time indicate Neil Armstrong mentioned to pilot Michael Collins that he ‘had a nagging feeling he’d forgotten to do something’, but by the time it clicked that what he’d forgotten was to pick up Melvin from the scientific experiments he’d been sent to do in a nearby crater, the crew’s descent into Earth’s gravity had already begun.
‘We felt bad about it, sure’ admitted astronaut ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, ‘but to be honest, Melvin had been a pain in the ass since lift-off. If he hadn’t spent the whole damn trip saying ‘are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ and giving out backseat parking advice while we tried to land, maybe Neil wouldn’t have sent him so far away to see if there was any space critters hiding behind some big moon rocks.’
The absent-minded mistake immediately sparked a massive cover-up operation by NASA and the US government, which saw the extensive doctoring of swathes of documentation and footage. The CIA was also tasked with spreading rumours that ‘NASA hadn’t even been to the moon but faked the whole thing in an aircraft hangar in Nevada’, and creating a conspiracy theory that successfully distracted seekers of the truth for decades.
Now, however, in the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, NASA has unveiled a photographic memorial to Haines at the Kennedy Space Center to honour the missing astronaut. The picture, previously dismissed as faked Soviet propaganda, features a vivid moonscape, with the words ‘Come back you bastards!!!’ spelled out in giant letters across the dusty surface, and was described by Aldrin as a fitting tribute to Melvin’s ‘minor but irritating contribution to space exploration’.
12th August 2009