Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic day when humanity, in the form of Neil Armstrong, set foot on another world. For yes, although in astronomical terms the moon is a small, insignificant and boring piece of rock skulking in the earth’s immediate neighbourhood, it’s still not of this world and so qualifies as another world.
To be honest, considering everything that’s happened since, I don’t particularly want to write about it. This resulting blogpost will be at best be a nostalgic wallow and at worst an exercise in despair. But anyway. Here goes.
Even I am slightly too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf on July 20th, 1969. But I do recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s. Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure what I was watching. At the time my family and I were huddled around a small black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which picked up a single channel, BBC1. (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Republic of Ireland, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some hazardous, electrocution-risking fiddling with it.) All I could discern on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a blurry dark-grey background. However, my parents assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took their word for it.
One thing I remember from the Apollo coverage was that the BBC used Richard Strauss’s fanfare Also Sprach Zarathustra as the theme music for their broadcasts. This had already featured memorably on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the greatest science fiction film ever made, and I assume the BBC used the same recording, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, that appeared on the film. It was disconcerting when I saw 2001 later, as a teenager, and heard Also Sprach Zarathustra again. Instead of making me look ahead to the future, to 2001, it stirred associations with the past, with the early 1970s and that grainy old moon-landing footage.
It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module. This was caused by the arrival of two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered. They consisted of a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers. Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the biggest horizontal surface on the sideboard in our living room. They made an imposing sight because until then I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill the top of our sideboard.
I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened. Not all the consequences of this were positive, however. My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement. If they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America. As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there. Also, some unusual words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which at school created much hilarity for my classmates and much misery for me.
One feature of these encyclopaedias that rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism. This was a scientific as well as an American optimism. Yes, there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools for converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way. At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up. Unfortunately, with hindsight, I realise that some of the assertions in the encyclopaedias were over-optimistic to say the least.
For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too. The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars. Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous. (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.) Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin-can left as litter in a lunar crater.
(Incidentally, it was surely no coincidence that the equally lengthy entry on ‘motion pictures’ in the ‘M’ volume was headed by a handsome colour photograph from Kubrick’s 2001.)
Anyway, I assumed this was what my life would be like by the time I’d reached my thirties. I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.
Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that very little futuristic stuff was happening anymore. As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, there was just the Skylab project and the space shuttle. Skylab came to an ignominious end when the by-then empty space station crashed back to earth on July 11th, 1979. By this time my family had moved to near the town of Peebles in southern Scotland, and on that date I was attending a scout camp outside the neighbouring town of Hawick. I remember feeling slightly worried that Skylab might fall on top of the field we were camping in and take out the entire 1st Tweeddale Scout Troop. As for the space shuttle, it received a lot of publicity and hype when it first took off, but it didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit to me.
And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism? It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga. I suppose as far as those encyclopaedias were concerned, the writing had already been on the wall because their coverage of modern American history ended with the presidency of Richard Nixon, shortly before Nixon fell spectacularly from grace. (Though anyone familiar with Nixon’s character would point out that, in the grace stakes, he never had far to fall.)
Still, even Nixon seems a model of intellect and restraint (if not integrity) compared with the specimen we have inhabiting the White House on July 20th, 2019. Trump’s entire being seems to loudly and violently rebuke that clear-minded scientific positivism that embodied America in 1969, at least as those encyclopaedias portrayed it. Science? What’s that? Trump has tried to slash funding for science and remove it from policy areas in crucial need of it, like the environment and public health. He’s tried to stop NASA doing research into climate change and tried to censor US Geological Survey press releases so that they don’t mention it. More generally, he’s made a point of proudly proclaiming his ignorance at every twist and turn of his presidency. The oaf doesn’t even read books. Give him a set of encyclopaedias and ten years later he wouldn’t have got past ‘A for aardvark’.
Of course this doesn’t matter one whit – indeed, it boosts his popularity – among his core support, who themselves are a ragtag army of anti-science ignoramuses: climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, crackpot conspiracy theorists and religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was created in six days 6000 years ago.
It’s particularly depressing at the moment to see Trump slandering non-white female politicians – knowing fine well this will energise his racist support base in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections – when it’s documented how black female mathematicians helped keep NASA’s show on the road in the 1960s. Today, some of Trump’s supporters would probably want to ‘send them back’ to Africa.
Yet it’s too easy to scapegoat Trump for all the world’s ills. Humanity generally hasn’t distinguished itself during the fifty years since NASA and the Apollo astronauts gave our species its finest hour. Our collective greed, laziness, materialism and indifference are taking a devastating toll on the earth’s environment and resources and unless we pay heed to the warnings of the majority of climate and environmental scientists – if, indeed, it’s not already too late – I don’t see much of a future, or any sort of future, for us. Maybe, just as Ernest Hemingway spent the late 1920s knocking out classics of 20th century American literature like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), but three decades later had become a sad, unpleasant, paranoid pisshead who ended up blowing off his head with a shotgun, humanity has already peaked, is now in decline and is heading for a graceless and suicidal end.