Space is ours for the taking

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the last time a man walked on the moon. It is time we went back, and farther into space.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Books

It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.

As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.

We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.

Yet by the time the Apollo programme was cancelled, the optimism of the 1950s and 60s was already on the wane. As he turned to pilot Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt on 14 December 1972 (22:54 GMT), Cernan issued the last words to be spoken from the lunar surface. ‘OK, Jack, let’s get the mother outta here.’ The TV cop-show wording contrasts strikingly with Armstrong’s pronouncement. Yet it mirrored a society that had soured. The dreams of the soixante-huitards had failed to materialise. The Beatles had split up acrimoniously. The Altamont Free Festival ended in chaos and death. America had been shamed and humiliated by the Vietnam War, there was mayhem in Northern Ireland, and the Baader-Meinhof and Black September groups were on murder sprees in Europe. As Andrew Smith writes: ‘I try to recall the last time I heard the word “progress” used in this way. After 1972 or so, no one trusted it – or maybe it was just the people who’d been using it most that we no longer trusted. The Bomb had been progress, as had Thalidomide and DDT… There were good things, too, but no longer anything self-evidently right about progress. It’s a lost faith, which Apollo grew out of, but also helped to destroy by revealing the Earth as fragile and rare.’ (1)

This word ‘fragile’ is frequently used to describe the Earth, especially in environmentalist circles. Indeed, the manned Apollo flights of 1968-72 were concurrent with the emergence of the environmental movement. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were both founded in 1971, and in the UK the Department of the Environment was set up a year later. In 1968, Paul R Ehrlich’s popular book, The Population Bomb, had predicted mass starvation, while The Limits To Growth, a multiple-authored work from 1972, was a comparable and modish Malthusian tract.

As Smith suggests, perhaps this is not coincidence. The photograph of Earth emerging from the moon’s horizon, taken by Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 from Apollo 8 – the first spacecraft to circumnavigate the moon – left many people awestruck. As Michael McCarthy wrote in yesterday’s Independent: ‘They saw in front of them an astounding sight – an exquisite blue sphere hanging in the blackness of space. The photograph Anders took is known as “Earthrise”, and its taking was without doubt one of the most profound events in the history of human culture, for at this moment we truly saw ourselves from a distance for the first time; and the Earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed infinitely beautiful, it seemed infinitely fragile. This wonderful image crystallised and cemented the sense of the planet’s vulnerability which [Rachel Carson’s] Silent Spring had awoken six years earlier.’ A photograph taken from Apollo 17, clearly delineating Africa and Arabia and dubbed ‘Whole Earth’, intensified among some a feeling of ‘fragility’ and solitude.

Thus, the Apollo programme and its images of Earth changed many people’s perception of its inhabitants – for the worse. This included Apollo 14‘s Edgar Mitchell, who after returning to Earth had either a spiritual awakening or mental breakdown. In any case, his experience in space made him deeply misanthropic. In a foreword to the cult tome Ether-Technology: A Rational Approach to Gravity Control, by Rho Sigma, Mitchell wrote: ‘The view from space has showed me – as no other event in my life has – how limited a view man has of his own life and that of the planet.’ He went on: ‘No other animal commits the atrocities and stupidities men do… In our surfeit of knowledge and paucity of wisdom, we’ve come near the brink of global destruction… and I became acutely aware of that as I gazed at Earth from a quarter of a million miles away.’ (2)

The sentiment that humanity is inherently bad for Mother Gaia is commonly heard today. It was summed up the late Tony Banks, British Labour MP and animal-rights supporter. ‘This House’, he told parliament in 2004, ‘believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes them out, thus giving nature the opportunity to start again’. This week, actress Joanna Lumley articulated a similar worldview, when she described humankind as ‘a plague’, claiming that ‘the tramp of mankind’s foot [on Earth] is pretty alarming’. Some now argue that since we’ve made such a mess of Earth, why would we ruin space as well by travelling there? I like to think the opposite on both counts. Apollo 17 did let us look at Mother Earth in all her glory. However, recent photographs of the Earth at night, depicting cities and oil rigs alight, also reveal humanity in all its splendour. These dots of light are literally the beacons of our civilization. If ‘Whole Earth’ inspired a previous generation, let us hope ‘Black Marble’ will the next.

Let’s hope, too, that one day we won’t need to observe the anniversary that falls today, of the last day a man set foot on the moon.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Books


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