It’s 51 years this coming week since Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Just over half a century since the most stunning achievement in the history of the world. Think about it this way. Life has existed on Earth for around three billion years. For most of that time it was little more than single-celled protozoa and such creatures.
Around six hundred million years ago, multi-cellular life emerged, at first in the seas – then on land. And yet, for almost the whole time complex life existed, it was restricted to this planet. Suddenly – very, suddenly, when set against this span of time – a great ape turned up that had a facility with tools, and in a virtual eye-blink spread across the planet. We built technology, built rockets – and went to the Moon. For the first time in the history of the world, a creature of this planet had left it and stepped on another. All, in geological terms, in the briefest flash.
There is another perspective, of course: that of human life. In those terms the speed with which humanity went from the first large-scale rocket experiments of the 1930s to the Saturn V lunar booster was still quick. The landing programme itself was brief, just over three years between July 1969 and December 1972. Here’s a video of the last Apollo crew departing the Moon, taken by the camera aboard the lunar rover:
Since then we have not been back – something that has, without doubt, fuelled the ridiculous ‘moon hoax’ conspiracy theories. In hindsight it’s clear why: Apollo was politically motivated by the Cold War. Once the landing had occurred, that political drive went away – and with it, much of the funding. The goal of ‘Moon by 1969’ also gave direction and urgency which then lacked.
More to the point, though, I think that humanity had a dream. The 1960s were far from perfect. Indeed, those who lived through it felt there was as much a sense of crisis as we have today, over half a century later. They were also right: the world was staring down the barrel of nuclear armageddon, and the ‘generation gap’ was in full swing. But woven through that fabric was also a dream: a dream that was hopeful, positive and where humanity could do anything they wanted – if they focused on it. In a couple of generations, humanity had gone from horse-and-cart to urban motorways filled with cars. They had gone from ‘string-bag’ biplanes to supersonic jets. Now the Moon was within reach. In the world of the 1960s, anything seemed possible.
In this vision the 21st century was idealised. By 2020 disease was meant to be conquered, human injustice stamped out, and prosperity, health and well-being shared by all. There were going to be underwater cities, moon bases – and happiness.
That dream was lost. What we actually have is a world reeling from the most severe pandemic since 1918; a United States torn asunder; rampant individualism in which the motto of the one percent who have accumulated most of the world’s wealth is apparently ‘I’ve got yours, so fuck you’; and a world crippled by ongoing financial crises. Much of it reflects the end-game of a two-generation cycle of neo-liberal thinking which, itself, began well after the final lunar landings. And that begs thought. It is all very well to suppose that humanity lost the dream of space; but it we look at the wider context, that dream also gave us hope, aspirations for the future, a shared sense of togetherness.
All that is gone, swept away by neo-liberal greed, selfishness and the entitlement of a few. But if our civilisation – and, by extension, humanity – is to not merely survive but also prosper, we need to recapture the dream: the dream of a better future, the dream of a world that is safe, sustainable and kind. The dream that, once upon a time, took humanity to the Moon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020