What a fortunate distraction the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing has been. Instead of contemplating the imminent crash-landing of Britain’s economy we could watch again the two first men walking on the moon, successfully ascending to the docking bay, and heroically returning to our wondrous blue planet.
In his first poem as poet laureate, Simon Armitage revives the spectacular festival of hubris that followed.
“But as Tricky Dicky clears his throat
to claim God’s estate
as man’s backyard
from the Oval Office,
and the gap narrows
to feet from inches,
suddenly stars recoil
to the next dimension
and heaven flinches”.
Less than five years later impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon began. The Furies had done their job.
The anniversary of the landings recalled a profound human experience that might have provided a new vision of human destiny and our place in the universe. Celebrating crowds across the world seemed to convey this hope. But, of course, the whole epic endeavor was not just a Columbus-like voyage of discovery, a moving display of human courage and technological prowess, launching humanity into the cosmos; NASA’s superhuman effort was also a bi-product of the Cold War.
President Kennedy, who committed the USA to a moon landing within a decade was spurred on by Russia’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. Immediately the US had achieved a manned moon landing the vast NASA budget was halved. There was a sense of “seen that, done that”. With the Russians eclipsed, impetus dissipated. Wernher Von Braun, NASA’s chief engineer, recruited in 1946, former member of Hitler’s Allgemeine (General) SS and designer of Nazi Germany’s V-2 Rocket, was the brains behind the Apollo launches from Cape Kennedy. In his mind the moon was to be the launching pad for future Mars missions. Nothing came of his vision for another fifty years.
Hoping that a major strand of Cold War rivalry would “bring humanity together” was inherently implausible, and that implausibility was made visible as the American flag was planted in the Sea of Tranquility. Competition between the two astronauts who would be the first men ever to put foot on the moon was no less visible. Buzz Aldrin’s father, a General, lobbied for his son to be ahead of Neil Armstrong. Aldrin himself followed up Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon’s desolate surface by attention grabbing, skipping and hopping in front of the camera in the moon’s meagre gravity.
The cost of this achievement was not negligible in either human or financial respects. Kennedy’s demand for a programme to land US astronauts on the moon within the decade had involved hundreds of thousands of people with an array of skills focused on one goal. Several lives were lost. The Soviet Union also lost lives but managed to keep their deaths quiet.
The extensive and excellent TV coverage during this July was largely new to me. In 1969 I was in Malawi reliant on the BBC World Service for news. As with Kennedy’s death, I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong took his great step for mankind: in the middle of Malawi, Central Africa lying in a maize field looking up at the sky. I also remember thinking how can it be that we can put men on the moon but not manage to enable millions of Africans to feed themselves, to buy shoes, have running water and electricity, and somewhere decent to live. Better understanding the collective intellectual feat that was the successful voyage of Apollo only makes the question more insistent.
Fifty years later that thought remains pertinent. I went back to Malawi a few years ago. Just as the empty rhetoric about expanding humanity’s home to other planets has proved just that, rhetoric, so little had happened in Malawi to better the lot of the majority of its inhabitants. More people had shoes. Children possibly looked better fed but a difficult judgement call. There were more portable radios. In the middle of the capital Lilongwe there was a new, big, shiny bank, the modern equivalent of a mediaeval cathedral though more quickly built and ugly. But housing in rural areas was much the same. A roadside stall selling hub caps on one of the worst roads was still there, supply from the potholes exceeding demand. Coffin production was an expanding business thanks to the new tragedy of Malawi’s AIDS epidemic. And the country had a government whose major intention was to compete for power and enrich its leading Party’s members and clients.
By one of those mental jumps – nadir is after all an astronomical term - the timely distraction of those heart-lifting times on the moon was quickly gone. Back to our new Prime Minister and his Cabinet. No escape. “Heaven flinches” as Armitage has it. And so do half the population of these islands as we learn what the nadir of our political culture means.