It is 49 years, this weekend, since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the Moon. And it was an incredible achievement – not just for the United States, but for humanity as a whole. For the first time in the history of the world, we had left it – and stepped on another celestial body. The very first time.
It was a day to remember. I was six in July 1969. At lunchtime, I came home from school to find that Mum had made a ‘moon lunch’ for us, inevitably with cheese. Back at school that afternoon they had a live radio feed from Mission Control in Houston going, as the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility. We didn’t have live TV at the time in New Zealand. There was a lot of ignorance about it. I still remember the teacher informing everybody that Armstrong had just stepped on to the moon, hours before he actually did – they had only just landed. It got better: one of the girls in the class tried to tell me he had fallen off the Moon. Well, quite.
That night we got to see the moon walk. An RNZAF Canberra bomber flew cans of film from Sydney, so they could be projected into a TV camera and broadcast. Yeah, tech was that gimcrack in New Zealand, back then.
All of this was coming up for half a century ago. And it makes me think about lost opportunities, lost worlds. Project Apollo, of course, was politically driven and cut back even before the first landings. But what worries me isn’t the loss of the various missions NASA had in mind to exploit the hardware – everything from lunar orbital stations to Lunar Module ‘taxis’ and small moon-bases, through to a manned Venus flyby. All of that is incidental.
What concerns me is the loss of general direction, of purpose. Not just in terms even of space-flight, but in general human terms, in the way that Apollo and the moon landings drew the imagination of nations.
We live in the world built by Apollo: the very computers on which social media and the internet is founded were given pace, impetus and shape by the way that computing had to be developed for the moon landings. We have memory foam mattresses, non-stick frypans and a host of other things, including aircraft autopilots, all of which have their origins in Apollo.
Yet the spirit that founded and drove this, it seems to me, has gone. Our world is more divisive than ever, a world in which lies, polemic and hatred have become normalised, where the leaders of major nations behave in ways that would seem ridiculous in a kindergarten, still less the world stage. It is a world of validation ‘bubbles’ – built, ironically, using the very computing technologies Apollo drove. It is a world in which to accuse someone is to condemn them. It is a world beset by the consequence and detritus of our own behaviours, our own greed, our own wars.
Forty nine years ago – for all the troubles and tribulations that beset the planet in other ways then – there was still that sense of triumphant human endeavour – of a planet unified, however briefly, in an achievement the world had never before seen. Back then, it seemed there was nothing humanity could not achieve, if we put our mind to it. And it is the loss of this that I so lament, as humanity divides and argues our way into oblivion, all the while fooling ourselves that exalting petty local interests irrespective of the damage done elsewhere will, somehow, make things better.
I tell you now, they won’t. Not unless, somehow, we can recapture that lost spirit – the spirit that wrapped humanity when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out on the lunar surface.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018