How can it really be forty years to the day since the first human beings walked on the surface of a celestial body that was not our own little world? How can it be that we’ve never surpassed that magnificent achievement after four decades? Oh don’t get me wrong, there have been other incredible, world changing endeavours – the Human Genome project springs to mind – but after four decades not to have striven beyond that Moon walk is dreadfully sad. Its like Concorde being retired without a next generation bigger, better, faster, more efficient replacement coming in, or the Shuttle due to finish its flights next year. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards a bit, not a good thing as a species.
Yes, I know there are other important priorities needing world resources, not least feeding the hungry and controlling runaway populations. And some will say we shouldn’t ‘squander’ money on space when we have these problems to look at here. But as Bill Hicks used to say, if we didn’t spend so much on every more devious ways to kill one another we could spend the money we spend on weapons to feed the hungry and still have plenty left over to explore space. Hell, if we took what women collectively spend on make-up every year we could do that! But still I feel sad that those things which marked the wave of a bright future when I was a wee boy now turn out to have been the highwater mark and the tide of progress has receded. Although I did really enjoy the image of all three of the Apollo 11 crew with Obama on the news. Three of my boyhood heroes. Still three of my heroes.
my signed copy of Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, a memento of the day when an Apollo astronaut came into my bookstore and I got to shake his hand.
Hard to believe that on this day forty years ago human beings, for the first time in all of recorded history, were on their way to the moon. July 16th, 1969, and the enormous Saturn V lifts from its pad, its gigantic bulk suddenly no longer earthbound, and it reaches into the sky… and then beyond the sky. Humans have made many great explorations of new lands, uncharted oceans, jungles, deserts, mountains, but this, this was something completely new. Less than a decade after Gagarin had become the first man in space (an event itself which came only a couple of decades after jets made their first appearance, those in turn coming only four decades after Orville and Wilbur’s historic first flight at Kittyhawk) humans were travelling to the Moon.
Its hung over every human culture there has ever been, since the days of hunter-gatherers, its been observed by the early priest-astronomers of the first civilisations in what we now call the Middle East, worshipped as a goddess by many cultures, observed by the first modern scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, its affected our weather and our tides for billions of years. But the idea of men on the Moon was a dream, a work of fantasy. Until July 1969. When it became something truly remarkable. An event that for one brief spell drew together all the peoples of our divided world into one species, dreaming the same dream, hoping the same hopes, willing Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to succeed in the daring, dangerous endeavour. A magnificent moment.
NASA’s restored video of Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap’ (link via Boing Boing)
This afternoon at the Edinburgh Film Festival I caught the UK premiere of the documentary by David Sington, In the Shadow of the Moon, detailing the glories (and the tragedies) of one of the biggest undertakings humans ever launched themselves on, the Apollo programme. As soon as I saw this in the EIFF programme this year I knew I was going to see it. I was born at the height of the Space Race; Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s astonishing, history-making flight to the Moon on Apollo 11 was still a year and a half away. I grew up with an astronaut space suit costume to play in while Gagarin and Armstrong were on posters as my boyhood heroes (they still are, some things you never grow out of); the idea of space exploration has lived inside me my entire life and as I approach the big four-oh birthday on the last day of this year I get a little sad that those promises of holidays in space we were told the future would hold have never materialised and it looks less and less like that boyhood dream will ever come true.
But still it weaves a magical spell on me; as the footage of those enormous Saturn Vs ascending the heavens on a column of fire flickered across the screen I could feel the old excitement rising – the boy in me is never far from the surface and images and ideas like this always bring it out. Much of the footage has never been seen before and is literally out of this world. The story of our first tentative steps out of the cradle of the Earth to our nearest neighbour is told in their own words by many of the NASA astronauts who made those epic journeys, voyages of discovery that stand in a long line of human endeavours such as the explorations of James Cook, Magellan or those unknown Polynesian sailors who crossed vast oceans on small boats made of reeds.
One of those men featured was David Scott, an Apollo commander – a man I actually met a few years back when his publicist came in to my old bookstore to say he was across the road in the Balmoral Hotel doing interviews with the Scottish press and would we like him to come across and sign some copies of the book he had co-authored with his friend the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space; his friend Arthur C Clarke would name a spaceship in his honour in the sequel to 2001). An ordinary day at work and then suddenly there I am chatting to a former astronaut and shaking hands with a man who had walked on the Moon; a man who got to live that boyhood dream of mine. Naturally I got one of those signed copies for myself; I’ve many signed books in my collection but only one signed by an author who has traveled far enough into space to look back and see the entirety of our world hanging in the void. We’ve all seen the pictures, but it wasn’t until the crew of Apollo 8 voyaged around the dark side of the Moon that humans actually saw the entire Earth from space. They took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, our world rising in the dark above the surface of the Moon, the furthest humans have yet been from our world.
Only a tiny handful of humans have ever seen that sight with their own eyes to this day, all now old men – to look at them in this film you could easily mistake them for someone’s favourite uncle of grandfather. But in their prime these men dared death, road on a column of scientific dragon’s fire further than anyone in the entire history of the world and in the process changed the way we see our little, beautiful world. It’s so sad we’ve pulled back from those days; I’m not stupid, I’m well aware of my history and understand much of the colossal cost of the space programme was only met because of politics of the Cold War. And yet I can’t help but feel we let ourselves become that much smaller as a species when we stopped pushing at the final frontier. Yes, I know we can spend the money on problems right here on Earth, but if we weren’t so busy squabbling among ourselves we wouldn’t need to waste so much on creating weapons – then we could spend that money on feeding and taking care of people here on Earth and have enough to explore, to go where no-one has gone before.
The Space Race series on BBC2 is shaping up to be quite excellent, in my (not very) humble opinion. So far we’ve gone from Von Braun and his engineers trying to escape to American forces in the crumbling Third Reich to the early 1960s. 1961 to be exact. Tonight’s documentary covered the wonderfully tense desperation between the USSR and NASA to put the first human into space. Despite being quite familiar with the history I found myself utterly gripped by this episode; how close NASA was, the dreadful explosion in the USSR. The series has the hallmark quality documentary level of detail you would expect from the Beeb mixed with re-creations.
Only 16 years before the most advanced rockets were the V2s being unleashed by the Nazis, raining destruction down on Britain – the dawn of the ballistic missile, which would cast a long and terrifying shadow across the succeeding decades. And yet 16 years later here was Yuri Gagarin climbing into a primitve rocket, knowing full well just how dangerous it was. That acceptance of danger was something astronauts and cosmonauts had in common; the willingness to push themselves into the unknown.
The Space Race was driven very much by Cold War considerations relating to those ballistic missiles and national prestige, but that doens’t mean for one moment we shouldn’t regard some of those achievements with reverence. Picture Gagarin in a violenty shaking tiny capsule, hurled into orbit; the rocket could explode, the capsule may not make it back – hell, they weren’t even sure a human being could actually survive spaceflight even if the machinery worked perfectly. And yet there was no shortage of pilots willing to fly.
So there is Gagarin, being shaken around and experiencing enormous G-force and suddenly it goes quiet and he is floating in orbit around our little world. The first man in the history to look down on the clouds scurrying across the face of the globe from above; the first to travel round the entire world in less than a couple of hours. Short centuries before the first circumnavigations of the globe were celebrated and took months or even years. Now Gagarin flashed round the Earth in just over 100 minutes.
We tend to forget just how big an adventure space exploration is today – we make jokes about Shuttle flights being delayed and are only reminded how dangerous an endeavour it is when tragedy strikes. We complain about costs (which may be big but are a fraction of what we waste on weapons) and lose sight of the sheer wonder of it all. And yet back then it was far more dangerous and raw and yet they did it. But Gagarin was the first to see our world from space and it was wondrful.
Alexei Leonov (the first man to perform a spacewalk and honoured by Arthur C Clarke by having the ship in 2010 named for him) recalled those days and his friendship with Yuri in his portion of Two Sides of the Moon which details the early space programme from both sides (reviewed here – I treasure the copy I have signed by Alexei’s co-author, Apollo astronuat David Scott (how blown away was I to talk to a man who had walked on the Moon?!?!)). Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes when I was a boy and this series reminded me of the mixture of fascination and excitement space exploration sparked in me back then; no wonder I ended up selling SF! Perhaps Ken MacLeod’s books are partly a substitute for space travel for me. I don’t have a poster of him anymore, but Yuri is still one of my heroes; I think he always will be. He really did go where no man had gone before and he did it boldly.