Reaching For The Sky

This last week – the anniversary of both the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the subsequent Apollo 15 mission that took science to the Moon – saw an avalanche of criticism about the current space race between billionaires. Similar complaints also cut short the original Apollo Moon missions – possibly the only demonstrably proven example of ‘trickle down effect’ that has actually worked worldwide in our lifetime, removed from pure economic theory and applied instead to the sciences and technology. Armstrong’s one small step really was a giant leap.

Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

Many years ago, I was a teacher in a small Australian country town. I recall one teenage student named Neil, who explained that he had a good reason for knowing the name of the first man on the Moon: “I was named after him.”

Young Neil and his peers are inhabitants of a new planet – they owe so much of their world to the Apollo pioneers. He would now be over fifty years old, and although neither he nor any of his generation can personally recall the events of July 1969, his parents would be among millions of people who can still bring to mind those exciting times – perhaps, like me, they were sitting cross-legged in a school library watching ghostly lunar images flickering on a black-and-white television set.

And yet the events and the culture of those times seem to be millions of miles away from us today, literally on another world. Australian archaeologist Alice Gorman observes that in 1967, Australia became the fourth spacefaring nation in history, but somehow we abandoned this legacy for some decades and became instead a dumping ground for the US Skylab space station when it fell to Earth – which I would argue is an apt outer space analogy for a nation that turned the lofty ambitions of its Woomera Rocket Range territory into an ethically regressive prison for refugees. Gorman expands upon this idea by exploring the cultural and political nuances of Woomera as a ‘space cultural landscape’ alongside others: Peenemünde in Germany and Tranquility Base on the Moon. Such landscapes clearly evoke physical distancing, isolation, desolation, hostile environments, and people who have been removed from the rest of humanity.

The Manichaean quality of human beings is universal – even in space. Well may we recall Neil Armstrong’s most famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – forever etched into our human culture. What we may forget is that Armstrong botched his famous line, creating the most well-known, self-contradictory tautology in history. His tongue-tied words remind us that fallible humans are still capable of great achievements. But his flubbed line has taken on a new relevance in subsequent years: the Apollo program really was both a small step and a giant leap for the human race.

The small step is what happened immediately afterwards. The tax-paying US public soon lost interest in reaching for the stars. The final Moon-walking astronauts returned to Earth aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972 and no-one has returned to the Moon since then. It was suggested that money from the cancelled Apollo program should be used to tackle such problems as poverty, war or disease, but our worldly problems have sadly continued in the decades since those dusty footprints were left on the lunar soil.

Apollo 11 Saturn V on launch pad 39A, 1 July 1969 (NASA Photo S69-38660)

Modern-day space missions now fly in low Earth orbit, and robotic satellites visit nearby planets to transmit data – but none can recapture the excitement or prestige of Apollo. In fact, a few disaffected inhabitants of my former student’s generation actually theorise that the Apollo program may have been falsified because humans cannot fly to the Moon nowadays. Such cynicism is a sad commentary on the state of our modern aspirations and of our greatly atrophied space program. More than that, it suggests that our world leaders have become preoccupied with navel gazing rather than star gazing, and that the generation that witnessed Apollo has neglected to instill in its youngsters the awe and excitement of looking up. Perhaps the Apollo program would have been better named after Icarus.

“Landed. And walked. On the moon.” – John Noble Wilford.

NASA photo

The space race between the USA and USSR began as a political race for kudos and perceived supremacy, but it evolved into a quest for science and knowledge, most noticeably when Apollo 15 – which launched fifty years ago this week – was expanded into a mission for exploration and geology as the first of a sequence of scientific Apollo missions. Its grandeur is captured in a scene from the TV series From the Earth to the Moon, when scientists and NASA debate where to land the Apollo 15 mission:

‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.’
– Plutarch (as quoted by Apollo 15 commander David Scott).

Crater 308 viewed from orbit (NASA Photo AS11-44-6611)

This is where Neil Armstrong’s truly giant step begins. The philosophical legacy from Apollo can be experienced any night when you go outside, look up at the Moon, and realise that it is a real world within our grasp. Apollo has turned our myuthology into physical reality – the Moon is a frontier waiting to be explored. Just as our ancient Australian outback is widely known for its red ochres and hidden waterholes, the magnificant desolation of the primeval lunar landscape has similar splashes of orange soil and seems likely to contain hidden ice deposits deep in some craters. Both vistas attract the human imagination.

The full impact of our social change is demonstrated by the old cliché (now sadly vanished like the aspirations it reflected): “We can land a man on the Moon but we can’t…” as a universal yardstick that for a few years after Apollo was used by people to measure the lengths humanity has yet to go in achieving various worthwhile ambitions. In a culture where we tend to assume that the word ‘Moonwalker’ will more likely evoke Michael Jackson than the Apollo astronauts, or where the idea of space explosions will bring to mind Star Wars rather than Apollo 13, we can nevertheless glimpse a public transformation taking place: a 1996 announcement over possible Martian microbial fossils was greeted with widespread social acceptance – and not with mocking comments about little green men as might have been the case a few years earlier. Such prevalent cultural acceptance of space is self evident and endemic – after all, it’s not rocket science.

But the real technological miracle is even more ubiquitous and more overlooked. Apollo spearheaded a civilian science program employing a veritable army of scientists, engineers and other workers. Apollo challenged them to attain new heights of knowledge, perfection and technology. Detractors of this program – who protested that the money should have instead been spent on Earth – conveniently overlooked the fact that all the money actually was spent on Earth, funding what was probably the biggest peaceful civilian research-and-development science program in history.

“And they called Apollo “the best return on investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought himself a sketch pad”.” – President George Bush (1989).

The ideologies and technologies which launched the Apollo program have been dissolved – but they have spread around the world. The next time someone goes for a medical scan, receives a cochlear implant or insulin pump or artificial heart, undergoes microsurgery, or receives a vaccine that requires extreme cold storage in difficult circumstances, they can thank Apollo for helping to save their life. We enjoy digital technology due to the advances in electronics which were expedited by the program that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin to leave their footprints in the lunar dust. When we use our GPS or watch an educational documentary on a streaming service – or when we read some preposterous conspiracy theory from luddites who display cognitive dissonance by using modern communication technology to spread science denialism – we can thank the space program for giving us those opportunities.

Apollo 11 lunar footprint (NASA photo)

Our modern footsteps have been guided by the technologies which arose from the space program, and in our skies overhead, satellites provide us with modern agricultural and forestry, weather forecasting, live worldwide television, and global communications, enabling us to live in a global village that previous generations could only imagine. The space program has fuelled environmental awareness, fixed the hole in the Ozone Layer, and empowered our fight against global warming.

“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”- Neil Armstrong (1969).

The Challenge to Look Up

Some years ago, a Melbourne radio station asked listeners to ring in with their opinion of whether or not the space program was worth the money – and one woman cynically complained that the space program does not affect her weekly supermarket shopping. Perhaps the radio host should have pointed out that she can thank the Apollo program for modern supermarket food safety standards and for aspects of modern agriculture that directly owe their existence to space technology – or that she can purchase scratch resistant glasses, baby formula, freeze dried foods, air purifiers and gym shoes thanks to spinoff NASA technology. There are over 2,000 documented spinoffs from the space program that are ubiquitous in our lives today.

In Australia, we love our sunburnt country, a land of satellite phones and wireless headsets, of air traffic technology and 3D printers, of space age wind turbines and solar cells. As part of a 2019 announcement of a push to create 20,000 new jobs and pour billions of dollars into the economy via the Australian space industry, Anthony Murfett, deputy head of the Australian Space Agency, stated: “Space impacts on the broader economy. As we increase space activity we’re going to be assisting farmers, miners and others, so there will be spillover effects.” Whether encouraging girls to pursue a career in STEM, or encouraging Australians to build environmentally sustainable housing, space is the place.

Whereas the USA in the 1960s tried to align the space program with its own western traditions through the use of ancient western mythological names such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo; and whereas China is doing so today by branding its space ventures with traditional Chinese mythological names such as Tiangong, Shenzhou, and Chang’e; Australia has seemed content to align itself with the bogan larrikinism of The Dish and naming boys who were born during the 1980s ‘Luke‘ after a fictional Star Wars character. Maybe the birth of the Australian Space Agency will help to change our culture and we will start to aspire towards more than having a Prime Minister who seeks consolation inside regressive Hillsong mythology and digs up polluting coal instead of finding better ways to treat our solitary biospherical planet in this large and hostile cosmos.

The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was a Soviet cosmonaut who reached Earth orbit some twenty years before the US flew lesbian Sally Ride as their first female astronaut. Tereshkova speaks today of the space program as a superior financial human priority: “People shouldn’t waste money on wars, but come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.” Do we dare to glimpse beyond the dirt and mud of our current world, beyond entrenched global poverty and inequality, and aspire to combine our own small steps into giant leaps for humanity? Can we look upwards and onwards, creating a better planetary mote in our vast cosmos?

Mission to Planet Earth

NASA photo.

While it is important to ponder big questions about the space program, it is also helpful to consider how its big answers may be relevant to our individual lives. This is no more evident than a message to me from Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke upon one of his visits to Melbourne. He graciously autographed a photo of himself standing at the Apollo 16 landing site in the lunar highlands near the Descartes crater, and this picture now has pride of place on a wall alongside my work desk. Its inscribed message is both personal and profound: ‘Aim High’. The Apollo program was the epitome of that philosophy.

In this sense, the space race is still underway – one that targets the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Science prospers best when it reaches the lives of grassroots society, not just the elites. Even billionaire Richard Branson, who made it into space on 11 July, acknowledges that science should be a democracy, not an instrument of privilege and inequality:

“Space is… putting satellites up there and monitoring different things around the world, like the degradation of rainforests or monitoring food distribution or… climate change… These things are essential back here on Earth, so we need more spaceships going up to space, we don’t need less.”

So instead of criticising those who are transferring the space program from government to grassroots humanity, we should instead be applauding them and welcoming how space is transforming life and philosophy on planet Earth. Such a long-term understanding is already paying off: archaeologists are debating the need for Heritage listings or other forms of protection for the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions, and for those of other – unmanned – probes on the Moon and Mars, lest they become ravaged by space tourists and souvenir hunters within the foreseeable future. This is not merely to suggest some esoteric first-world debate that is unrelated to biosphere Earth and its real-life, everyday problems; it suggests the fundamental shift for our species within our perceived and actual place in the cosmos. As Grant Fewer suggests, even Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s footprints in the lunar regolith are important artifacts of our species: “… the prints are significant because they record in a physical medium (rather than a photographic, video-based, or textual one) an historic event that represents a huge shift in the intellectual and technological development of humankind.” (Fewer, 2007, 5). We live in exciting times of transition, if only we had the wisdom to realise this perspective.

Aldrin poses for portrait. (NASA Photo AS11-40-5903)

I hope that Neil, my former student – wherever he is now – would appreciate just how much the space program has helped to create his world and given him a much greater legacy than a simple namesake. His peers – especially any who doubt the reality of the Apollo program – have been given the greatest possible inheritance by the previous generation: a better world, a dream etched into the night-time sky, and an ability to reach for the stars.

***

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 15
54-08-11 ∇ 10:29:57

Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 26 July 2021 13:34:00 UTC.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Kate Doolan (1962 – 2019), co-author of the book, Fallen Astronauts; also one of the co-authors, along with myself and others, of a “Man on the Moon” lift-out for the Herald Sun newspaper on the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 1994.

References:

Greg Fewer, 2007. ‘Conserving space heritage: the case of Tranquillity Base’, ‘Journal of the British Interplanetary Society’, vol. 60(1), 25 June, 3-8.

Alice Gorman, 2005. ‘The cultural landscape of interplanetary space’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 5(1), 85–107.
– – – – – – – – , 2011. ‘The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon’, Journal of Australian Studies, 35:4, 529-546.

Carl Sagan, 1980. ‘Chapter XIII: Who Speaks for Earth?’ in Cosmos. Macdonald Futura Publishers, London.

Molly Silk, 2021. ‘China is using mythology and sci-fi to sell its space programme to the world’, The Conversation, 25 June.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn