“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
– ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.
In commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, 21 July 2020
Fifty-one years ago today, I glimpsed transcendence. On 21 July 1969 (Australia time), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 ‘Eagle’ lunar module and became the first men to walk on another world – and I was an eye witness (via television).
I was eight years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my school library, watching a small black-and-white television set that had been placed on a stand in the library corner. The room was full of giggling, chattering school kids, and ringed with a wall of teachers who exchanged nervous glances upon realising that the assembled throng of young schoolchildren did not have the collective attention span to fully understand or absorb the significance of what they were watching.
Momentarily annoyed at the attention deficit of my peers, I sat transfixed, and experienced the numinous. On that flickering screen, I saw our world in a pixel, saw the cosmos spread before us like the symbolic potential of the human ability to dream and flower into something greater. The small screen held infinite vistas of both the cosmos and the potential of our human ability to conquer our challenges.
Within maybe an hour or so, my teachers called off this television excursion due to the inability of many students to sit quietly – but in that hour, I glimpsed eternity.
I think that my life was never quite the same again. Even at that young age, I realised that we as a species may struggle with wars and famines and poverty and injustice, but we had proved that we could literally reach the Moon if we aimed high enough and hard enough. Our outer imperfections belie our inner nobility. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we may have our feet in the debasement of mundane life, but we can glimpse the glories of the cosmos.
Let us never forget the difference between two profound human journeys: one near the Awash River in Ethiopia, and the other in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. On that first journey, our possible ancestor, Lucy, likely fell and met her death just over three million years ago as she somehow tried to cross a small gully at Hadar, Ethiopia; her fossilised bones record both her existence and our long ancestral legacy. On the second journey, in 1969 – within living human memory – encultured apes demonstrated their progress in surviving and evolving, via technology and resilience, enabling them to cross vast and dangerous celestial distances and visit an alien world, thereby foreshadowing a promising potential future for a spacefaring species. In walking on the dusts of the Sea of Tranquility, humankind forever replaced the stuff of Biblical myths and legends with the assurance of science: we were capable of walking on a different kind of water.
We have not returned to the Moon since 1972, and an entire generation of humans has grown up lacking the personal excitement of watching a lunar landing. However, those old lunar missions, and the space program generally, spearheaded a scientific, aerospace and engineering revolution that has changed our world – from computers and iPhones to satellite communication and global village technology; from heart pacemakers to CAT scanners and agricultural satellite imagery. Project Apollo was replaced with NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth – and that mission continues.
But Houston, we have a problem. The heights we have reached also reveal how far we have fallen.
Last year, I visited a certain public library, and sought the assistance of a young librarian to find microfilm copies of the newspapers from July 1969 as a preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. When she saw the headlines that I was seeking – ‘Man Walks On Moon’ – she glanced at me covertly and whispered conspiratorially, “Do you think we really went there?” Around that same time, in a more private forum, a personal associate conversationally suggested to me that people had never even been into space, and that any scientific evidence I could produce to rebut his claim was merely a matter of opinion. I was disappointed that both these people failed to understand the difference between an uninformed (or misinformed) opinion and one that is based upon informed evidence and/or actual expertise. But I also realised that more sinister overtones were present.
Moon hoax conspiracies are just one symptom of modern-day science denialism, ranging from vaccination to fluoridation, from Flat Earthers to ‘birthers’. This is a profoundly ironic response from a scientifically-illiterate generation that benefits from the most scientifically advanced prosperity in history. How sad that so many people enjoy keyboard access to literally the world’s vast store of knowledge, and yet remain so ignorant of one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. How sad that their individual world-view is so impoverished that they reject the grandeur of rational scientific and human advancement. And how sad that their human connection fails to appreciate that their scientific grandparents reached the Moon without the Internet, GPS, or even the computing power of modern-day mobile phones.
We live in a pandemic of misinformation, when uninformed personal opinion and science denialism are on the ascendancy. The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates how such cultural narcissism may be potentially lethal. And yet, amidst this self-fulfilling cultural worship of mediocrity, we still have the potential to rise above our weaknesses. Oscar Wilde’s previously-alluded quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, reminds us that we make a conscious choice every day whether or not to rise above our personal circumstances. Internet correspondent Vatika Harlalka raises a commendable interpretation of Wilde’s words: “Those who look at the stars know that there is a world outside of their sadness and wish to make efforts to reach it.”
Human beings are capable of great things. Without alien intervention, ancient human societies built pyramids and cities. Without the alleged morality of divine intervention, slavery and racial segregation were officially abolished, and women and LGBT people have been increasingly assigned equal rights (although these tasks are not yet complete). Similarly, without human conspiratorial agency, people went to the Moon and returned safely. It is time for humankind to acknowledge its potential for greatness alongside its many weaknesses, and make conscious decisions as to which paths we will emulate and walk. Through the application of science and rationality, Tranquility may not only be a lunar location, but it may prove to be our spiritual human destination as well.
I long to see humanist, scientific and freethought publications promote the histories and legacies of the space program, and of science, and thereby inspire younger generations with the stories and glories of the human spirit and its accomplishments. We need to go tell it on the mountain and in the valleys; in text and tweet and social media, in jottings and in journals. And every time we see the Moon, we should acknowledge the majesty of belonging to a species that has actually visited its sun-baked plains, and scooped and sampled its sterile soils. What awaits us next?
When we return to the Moon, as one day we must, it will hopefully be as a more enlightened, optimistic, scientifically literate, educated, rational species. Lucy and her people could only look up at the Moon in the curiosity borne of their still-to-be-fully-realised self-potential. Maybe her distant lunar descendants will return the gaze by looking back at the Earthrise above their lunar travel pods, and ponder the thousands of generations of scientists who separate them from their wandering African ancestor. From Ethiopia to Earthrise – that’s quite a journey.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn