Recapturing the dream – memories of Apollo and a wonderful future

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.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog’s Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

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

15 thoughts on “Recapturing the dream – memories of Apollo and a wonderful future

    1. I keep thinking that if the dream of the 1960s could have been maintained, we’d be back on the Moon now. That of itself is less of an issue, of course, than the fact that this same dream offered hope for a better future all round. One that was never realised, alas.


  1. That generation gap… I’m tempted to say that those of us who were on the younger side of it (we boomers) have messed up, haven’t we? We weren’t the ones who put men on the moon, and it’s probably too late for us to fix things now. No wonder some younger people don’t think much of us.

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    1. I was too young to really remember the 1960s. It seems to me, though, that a lot of the potential for change in the 1960s was lost – absorbed, corporatised even during the 1970s, and killed completely by the neo-liberal revolutions of the 1980s. I agree though, it’s too late to fix things now. There’s a new generation with different ideals now, and the problem is that the ‘old guard’ (meaning the neo-liberal Gen X’ers who took control in the 1980s) seem more bent on destroying everything if they can’t keep what they gained.

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  2. Matthew, I liked this post well enough that I took the liberty of reblogging it.

    Whenever this subject comes up I always remember meeting Scott Carpenter. In his 80s, Scottie was still flying his own airplane, and still asking why we weren’t on Mars, much less the Moon.

    So I’ll ask because Scottie isn’t around to ask the question anymore: Why aren’t we on Mars?

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    1. Thanks for the shout-out! I once saw Scott Carpenter: he came through Wellington airport when I was a kid, my Dad found out and made sure I got to see him walk by. Never met him. But yeah – why aren’t we on Mars? It’s that lost dream again. I keep wondering what would have happened had the Apollo-level funding been maintained, or Phillip Bono’s enormous ROMBUS booster been built. Or both. Instead humanity turned away from the challenge. Damn.

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      1. Well, we whupped the Rooosians, and thet thar wuz whut counted to most folks. (Chews reflectively, spits terbacky.) Go to MARS? Shoot, son, they ain’t no Rooosians on Mars. Dreams ain’t fo’ pracktikle folks no how. Don’t bring the cotton in, do they?

        Kidding aside, a friend of mine sent me a link this morning to an image taken at the Altacama Observatory, of a relatively (in cosmic terms!) nearby star, in which two planets orbiting the star are visible. Sometimes the contrast of what we could do, as opposed to what we are willing to do, will nigh rend one’s heart asunder. Take care!

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  3. It seemed to me as if the dream was over when the Beatles split up. That was a huge global sadness, and only five years later “Love love love” was replaced by “Get pissed, destroy”. I love your comprehensive sweep through all of human evolution. Remember Kubric’s murderous ape? – his weapon becomes an orbiting nuclear bomb – like you say it has been the blink of an eye, but we are still behaving like monkeys, as I think Kubric was trying to warn us. Maybe a dream cannot be lost, it’s just still a dream.

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    1. I think a major part of the human problem today is that we’re still behaving like apes. Evolution hasn’t caught up with the large societies in which we live. Kubrick probably wasn’t aware of evolutionary psychology, but he was very prescient.

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  4. I remember the moon landing, but I think I was too naive to see it as anything other than a cool bit of tech. For me and my friends, Vietnam was more of an issue. But then in the 80’s? Two huge things happened that did give me hope – the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa. If humanity could do that, we could do anything. And of course it’s all been downhill from there. Maybe we do need a dream. 🙂

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      1. Yes, it’s odd what registers for us at such a young age. I know we were in the middle of a Cold War with total annihilation a distinct possibility, but in my head I never connected the dots between that, and the whole Flower Power generation. Sometimes the obvious is very not obvious. 🙂

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  5. Hi Matthew, Interesting article, as always. I was a kid when this wonderful flight took off and happened to be visiting my grandmother, who lived nearby just to the north. It was thrilling to go outside and watch the live rocket soar toward the heavens. I’ll never forget that sight, and I’ll never lose sight of that dream. Cheers, Ashley

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    1. A very cool experience! Here in NZ we watched the TV, read the news etc with avid interest, but it was all happening ‘over there’, which was deeply frustrating! The weird part is that, in the 1960s and 1970s, NZ saw itself as a backward pastoral nation. Yet today, we’ve developed our own rocket for the small satellite market, and it’s being launched from a site just across the bay from my home town. Nobody would have dreamed in a million years that this could ever happen.

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