Sunday, 26 August 2012

To Infinity and Beyond ... please

I was sad to read yesterday of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human to have set foot on another world. But I was even sadder this morning to see comments like this on Twitter (via @thepoke):

Have we really got to a stage, in just a couple of generations, where kids really don't know about astonishing, world-changing events that happened just 43 years ago? How can any First World citizen with access to a telly and the internet and libraries not know who Neil Armstrong is?
I was eight when Armstrong stepped off the Eagle's ladder and fluffed the immortal line, 'That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for Mankind'. In UK time, it happened in the middle of the night but my parents couldn't have stopped me staying up to watch it if they'd tried. All my schoolfriends watched it too, as did an estimated 500 million people worldwide; the highest viewing figures of any event in the history of TV. This was 1969 of course; the TV was black and white and video recorders only existed at the BBC. The idea of having one in your home was science fiction. Even cassette recorders were a few years away so Dad recorded the event on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder with a squeaky Cornish eight-year old providing the intro: 'My Daddy's going to tape record the landing', and occasional observations and comments (I really must get the recording off my mother and see if I can get it converted to CD or MP3). I still remember the thrill of watching those ghostly, grainy pictures as Neil and Buzz stepped onto the surface of the Moon. What an amazing adventure. 
We seem to have lost that sense of excitement here in the cynical 21st century. It bugs the Hell out of me that every time I read of some extraordinary new advance, or some new planned expedition, almost immediately there's a barrage of killjoys who pipe up with 'But what's the point of that? We could spend the money on hospitals and cancer research etc.' Now, I'm not for an instant suggesting that we shouldn't fund hospitals and cancer research etc. In fact, I find it genuinely disgusting that research into disease prevention is so poorly funded that they have to rely on charity. However, there is more to life than mere utility. If we'd taken that same attitude to the recent Olympic Games in London, we would have been poorer for it. I'm not a sports fan at all and barely watched the event, despite its extensive coverage, but I reckon it was money well spent just to see the UK, for once, happy and united and proud.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister suggested that Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response was: “Then what are we fighting for?” Even if that story isn't true, it's known that Churchill argued to keep the theatres open and was determined that we should not give up the things that make us joyous and proud. When the direc­tor of the National Gallery, Ken­neth Clark, sug­gested that the paint­ings in the National Gallery should be sent from Lon­don to Canada, Churchill said, “No. Bury them in caves and cel­lars. None must go. We are going to beat them.” And it's certainly true that he argued with the transport planners to allow enough capacity on the trains to deliver flowers to the cities so that 'the ladies could be cheered up'.

There is more to life, much more to being human, than merely staying alive. There is art and science and discovery. And there's that sense of excitement and adventure that we once had as a species; the thing that drove us to explore new lands, build new machines, find new species. The space programme is hugely important; never forget that it led to the development of many new areas of science and medicine. It's pretty much true that you wouldn't have that iPod or that digital clock or that halogen cooker if it wasn't for people like Neil Armstrong pushing the limits of human endeavour. The MRI, the electric heart pump and voice controlled wheelchairs are just some of the medical advances that came from the space programme. There are many, many more.

Thanks to a billion billion happy accidents and advantageous mutations, we humans have become the amazing, self-aware, inquisitive beings that we have. We are very possibly the only such beings in the entireity of the universe or universes. The Moon Landings infected the whole world with a sense of wonder; they made us feel good. What a tragedy - no, what a crime - it would be to squander that spirit of enquiry and lust for adventure.

Oh, by the way, the Moon landings did take place - sorry to disappoint all you conspiracy theorists. It was a space 'race', if you recall. This was the height of the Cold War - US astronaut Frank Borman once described the Apollo Missions as 'just a battle in the Cold War' - and only seven short years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (if you don't know who Neil Armstrong is, you'll be completely lost by now - google it). The Russians and the Americans were at each other's throats and Apollo was being tracked every inch of the way by the Kremlin. They'd have kicked up an almighty stink at any hint of trickery or fakery. That said, I'm happy to concede that many of the photographs might have been doctored for clarity and to rub Comrade Brezhnev's nose in it.

So if you meet someone today who doesn't know 'who the fuck Neil Armstrong is', put them right. We must never forget who he was, what he did and what the Moon landings represented. 

Let's go to Mars. Let's colonise the Moon. Let's climb the highest mountains. Let's plumb the deepest ocean depths. Let's find ways to cure disease and conquer old age. Let's all find ways to live together in peace and enlightenment.

That's the vision that Neil Armstrong and Apollo were part of.



  1. Neil Armstrong et al provided my first memory of man doing something positive. Harmless and adventurous. Exciting not murderous. I have a scrap album stuffed with newspaper pictures and reports. The Sellotape is a little dry now and the pages yellowed but the most momentous moment so far in the history of man lives in there and in me. The scrap album is treasured. The memories equally so. I too was allowed to stay up and watch. I simply can't imagine a human risking life and uncertainty to travel in a rocket to something we knew little about. Neil Armstrong. He's seen more than we ever will. He's seen the world we live in from another orb. Here's looking back at you, brave,courageous man!

  2. I agree. I wasn't born when Armstrong walked on the moon but even I can see just how important it was. We seem to have entered a world where people of a certain age know who Jessie J and Kim Kardashian are but don't know who Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong were. More than a little depressing but a very good blog post