One giant leap for our self-understanding

The Moon landing changed life on Earth forever.

Paul Ratner

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Since the beginning of time, man has wondered about the Moon. The ancient Greeks believed it was a horse-drawn chariot wrenched across the night sky by the goddess Selene to provide light where there was only darkness. Some Nepalese cultures taught that the Moon is the resting place for our forgotten ancestors, a celestial destination for all who came before. And some Pagans still contest that the Moon is a midwife of life itself, making women more likely to conceive when this winking space rock is in full bloom.

The symbolism of Earth’s nearest neighbour was not lost on John F Kennedy. On 12 September 1962, on a sweltering day baked in the Texan sun, the young president announced to the 40,000 attendees on the bleachers at Rice University, and to the world, that the US would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. The scale of JFK’s ambition was unprecedented. He was committing the US to an ‘untried mission to an unknown celestial body’ 240,000 miles away, claiming that re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere would require speeds of over ‘25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the Sun’. However, he declared that this valiant endeavour, which would push mankind to the edge of human experience, would be worthwhile, as it would allow us to achieve ‘new hopes for knowledge and peace’.

And so it came to pass that this extraordinary declaration fired the starting pistol for the greatest rivalry in all of human history, the race between the great Cold War superpowers of the US and the Soviet Union for the ultimate accolade – the first spacefaring nation to land a man on the Moon.

On 20 July 1969, after seven years of stomach-churning drills – including a death-defying, failed docking mission in low orbit and zero-gravity training in NASA’s contraption nicknamed the ‘Vomit Comet’ – commander Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to a different world. And yet, as he opened the capsule door on to the Sea of Tranquility and climbed out of the hatch of history, he didn’t find Greek gods or Nepalese spirits or Pagan fertility symbols. What he found instead was a dusty, pockmarked wasteland basking in the pale Earthlight; an untouched sanctuary of four-and-a-half-billion years of geological history; an ancient shrine that may hold the key to the origins of the universe. ‘Magnificent desolation’, as his co-astronaut Buzz Aldrin said.

It’s been 50 years since that fateful voyage and from the vantage point of history, can we say that Kennedy’s dream was realised? Did the Moon landing lead to a more peaceful and knowledgeable world?

‘The Moon landing was a race up until the last minute’, Mark Yates, physicist and space lecturer, tells me. ‘The Soviets launched a rocket called Luna 15 to try to scoop up a couple of grams of soil from the Moon on the same day to beat the Americans. It failed, ironically crashing into the aptly named Sea of Crises.’

‘However, the Apollo missions were all about peace’, he explains. ‘Although the Moon landing, Apollo 11, took place in 1969, Apollo didn’t finish until the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975’, an aerospace détente that brought together the two sides of the Iron Curtain. ‘It was designed to end Apollo but to end it with a handshake in space with the Russians.’ What began as a race ended as a partnership.

Yes, the Stars and Stripes flew on the Moon, but the plaque they left behind read: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’ ‘I think that summarises it very nicely’, Yates says. ‘It was for all nations.’

And the knowledge we gained from the Apollo missions was astronomical. The first digital computers, the first silicon chips that today power our toasters and smartphones and cars, our understanding of how ours and other solar systems are formed. Even the Chinese buggy that has been roving the far side of the Moon since January. All this is part of the legacy of the advances made during the Space Race.

And yet, there was something else that those first space pioneers discovered out in space, something more profound. Not only did those early days pave the path for a more peaceful and enlightened world, but through those first images of the Earth suspended in the silent darkness, we discovered deeper truths about ourselves.

‘I think a lot of people credit Apollo with helping kickstart the whole environmental movement’, says Yates. ‘We went to the Moon, but actually, we ended up looking back at the Earth and realising what a precious commodity it is and what a special and rather unique place we’re fortunate to live in.’

‘Seeing the Earth from space’, says Richard Phillips, founder of Apollo Talks, an organisation that inspires schoolchildren through the history of the Apollo missions, ‘made us truly understand the beauty and fragility of our world. It taught us the humbling truth that our earthly home is nothing more than a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”, to quote Carl Sagan’s words.’

The astronauts flew a quarter-of-a-million miles only to find that their most profound achievement was to turn the cameras on us.

So what next for space? A lunar orbiter to shuttle astronauts between the Earth and the Moon? A Mars cycler that will travel in rotation between the Earth and the Red Planet? Mining Helium-3 on the Moon’s surface to supply all our energy needs? Space tourism? All these things are in the offing. What we know for certain is that not only did the Moon landing 50 years ago change our understanding of the solar system, but it also changed the way we see ourselves. It wasn’t just one small step for America, it was one giant leap for mankind.

Paul Ratner is a journalist and author. Visit his website here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Justin Bieber

24th July 2019 at 12:40 am

People will believe anything if it’s on TV

James Knight

16th July 2019 at 5:50 pm

I was reminded on a NASA website that “the moon is further away than it looks”. Well I guess they would know.

I wonder what it would have been like if it happened in 2019 rather than 1969? It is such a “mind grenade” experience I suspect the astronauts would have PTSD or something similar. Just like the film Solaris. I’m not suggesting the current generation would be “snowflakes” rather than made of the “right stuff”, more that the culture has changed so much.

Jerry Owen

16th July 2019 at 2:22 pm

Man landing on the moon ‘helped kick start the whole environmental movement’ !
That’s one giant leap of faith !

James Knight

16th July 2019 at 5:38 pm

It is not a leap of faith at all. The irony is if we had stuck to the environmentalist doctrine of the precautionary principle, we would have never got off the ground.

Jerry Owen

17th July 2019 at 10:46 am

Your post doesn’t make sense unfortunately.
Any way .. only a handful of men have gone to the moon, for the rest of us the excitement was short lived .. wow they did it. Then as we do we go back to the humdrum of earning a living to put food on the table. There is no link between landing on the moon and the ‘environmental movement’.
Indeed it appears we may be raping the moon of certain elements in due course, does that mean we care about the environment of the moon ?

In Negative

16th July 2019 at 1:58 pm

“Since the beginning of time, man has wondered about the Moon. The ancient Greeks believed it was a horse-drawn chariot wrenched across the night sky by the goddess Selene to provide light where there was only darkness. Some Nepalese cultures taught that the Moon is the resting place for our forgotten ancestors, a celestial destination for all who came before…”

And in this, isn’t it a disaster for cultural imagination, binding collective humanity to the variations of a single dominant truth – that of “reality”? That is, at least, until the methods by which we discern reality permit us again to say “the moon is again free to be whatever we want it to be”. What would it take to give the moon back to the imagination? What would it take to give life back to the imagination? And who knows, perhaps the moon for those Greeks was Schrodinger’s Cat, just waiting to be given its ‘real state’ by telescopes, which in themselves, prior to our willing them, were Schrodinger’s Cat. Indeterminate states collapsed into existence only by the willingness of consciousness to discover them? Somewhere, and at some point, it is to be hoped ‘reality’ is capable of eating itself and bringing the imaginatio back into truth.

Winston Stanley

16th July 2019 at 5:16 pm

The moon landing is quite the existential metaphor. The sum pursuit of all human history and endeavour is to find ourselves on a meaningless dusty, randomly cratered rock in an infinite black nothingness. We live out our brief lives on a bright multicoloured jewel of illusion, struggle, delight and concern, and then we return into the infinite nothingness from which we came, and all of our meaningless endeavours are brought to an end. For an eternity we did not exist, and after a brief moment, we shall for an eternity exist as much as if we had never existed at all. For an eternity the infinite nothingness of being “prevails”. And yet the earth also prevails, for a time, so two fingers to the infinite nothingness.

Winston Stanley

17th July 2019 at 7:45 pm

A pointless, meaningless being is ours to do with as we choose/ can, so in that sense it is very much Schrodinger’s Cat. Nothingness is a blank canvas on which to paint as our imagination sees fit. The moon still functions poetically in the way that you want it to – the radical freedom of human hermeneutics. It is up to us to decide what being “means”, if anything, and what we want to do with it. The “cat” is never “there” in that sense, we always put it there, and we can always wipe the canvas and start afresh. If we tire of a particular “meaning” and project then we can always pick another. We are freer than we have ever been in that sense and the moon can symbolise that.

John Millson

16th July 2019 at 1:51 pm

Good piece. This is good too:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006p5f

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 1:34 am

From the bible we are able to understand that the world is approximately 6000 yrs old. Science is worldly and fallible, as shown once again here with ridiculous claims about four billion years, or whatever.

Astonishing technology tho..25000mph? Very difficult to comprehend. I’m not so sure that our world needs rocks from mars at this stage, and l believe that it actually speaks to man’s self-worship and vanity, given that the Heavenly Rock is of incalculable value and is freely available right here in this world.

Winston Stanley

16th July 2019 at 3:42 am

Hana, have you studied the scripture passages about geocentrism and the flat earth?

https://hypertextbook.com/eworld/geocentric/

Some say that the moon landing was a hoax filmed in a studio with scenery and props.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/6912943/moon-landings-faked-conspiracy-theories-apollo-hoax/

Do you think that maybe Satan is up to his usual tricks, trying to separate God’s children from the Bible? He is the “deceiver”, so we cannot discount that he would come out with a moon landing hoax.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 1:05 pm

Haha, no l haven’t, and l think that you’re probably just having a lend now.

I’ve never really looked into the moon landing. Do you have any thoughts either way?

Winston Stanley

17th July 2019 at 11:05 pm

“I’ve never really looked into the moon landing. Do you have any thoughts either way?”

Hana, I reckon that Satan was up to his usual, having a giggle at God’s children. Or Loki. Someone with horns, anyway.

Winston Stanley

16th July 2019 at 5:38 pm

It is good that you can take a joke. God likes a laugh in the Bible, even if it is only ever when he is killing humans. “He shall laugh at them when he destroys them all, etc.” which sounds a bit psychopathic. If we are made in his image then its makes sense that we laugh back at him. We should drown him in a flood and see how he likes it, and have a good belly laugh while we do it.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 11:58 pm

Context Wattie.

Winston Stanley

16th July 2019 at 6:06 pm

We went to the moon and had a good look around at the sky. “So where is heaven then?” And we searched around for God in the craters and behind the rocks to see where he might be hiding. “Oo oo, Go-od, are you there?”

P M

16th July 2019 at 10:24 pm

And yet we saw the moonies on tv instead.

Jerry Owen

17th July 2019 at 10:48 am

PM
Remember the Wombles ? I don’t ever remember them being environmentalists,

Winston Stanley

17th July 2019 at 6:52 pm

And the Clangers. Do you remember them? “Bloop, bloop, bloop.” Classic TV.

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