It was forty years ago today that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. The plethora of commemorative and retrospective articles and documentaries all rightly remember this day as a great landmark in the development of mankind. By looking at the culture, mores and achievements of 1969, we can ask ourselves what our priorities are now for how we treat each other as nations, our spirit of discovery, our protecting the environment, indeed everything. The Apollo Programme holds a mirror up to where we are today and where we want to go in the future.
Space and politics go hand in hand, often murkily. No cold war, no space race. No Nazi V2s, no leaving Earth’s orbit. No Mutually Assured Destruction, no giant rocketry. The launching of Sputnik and Gagarin’s spaceflight were remarkable achievements for what was a third world country calling itself the second world. But the US military, political and scientific establishment had no real way of knowing just how poor the USSR really were – they just looked at the optics and were dazzled. Kennedy’s mission statement to ‘go to the moon and the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ rallied a nation against a straw-man supported by nukes and limitless tanks and soldiers.
And yet a huge amount of idealism lay behind the Apollo Programme. Over 500,000 people were involved in putting the first men on the moon. The astronauts may have been military men but, in the words of every 50s ‘B-Movie’ that caught the popular imagination, ‘they came in peace’. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were 1960s Philosopher Warriors, explorers but not conquistadores, men of action but also poets. The fact that the three Apollo 11 crew have had their many ups and downs as in any human life does not take away from the courage they showed forty years ago in travelling further than man had ever travelled before. They were all too human but still heroic individuals.
The International Space Station has shown what nations can do when they co-operate rather than fight and compete. The growing influence of the BRIC countries, (Brazil, Russia, India and China) means that space has become a community rather than a hegemony. We rely on satellites launched in the former Soviet Union or in French Guiana to make calls to each other around the World on hand-held devices foreseen on ‘Star Trek’ in that decade of dreaming. Space development should be embraced, not feared. Environmentalism owes so much to the ‘Earth Rising’ photo from the Moon; we only realised how fragile our planet was by travelling outside it.
But there are huge negatives too. Arming and militarising space makes life more and not less dangerous. The billions of dollars spent on the space programme need to be balanced against poverty and starvation still all too prevalent on Earth. There were protests in 1969 about the cost of the Space Programme; there are objections now that we can not afford to go to Mars, to do ‘the other things’. Yet peaceful endeavours beyond the atmosphere may be crucial to making nations work with, not against each other.