Writer’s Block: Fly me to the moon

Although Stephen Hawking suggests it might be an idea to turn off the planetary lights and pretend to be out, I wrote this back in 2005 because I’m a fan of space exploration. Some of the references may be slightly dated but I still feel the same:

I don’t know why this should be so, but, having read in Moondust that only nine of the twelve men who walked on the moon are still alive, I’m a bit unsettled. I think it’s because, as the book mentions, the moon landings are often seen as the last optimistic act of the twentieth century. In a world that’s currently dealing with everything from terrorism to climate change to hurricanes, the idea of a major act of optimism is highly attractive. Part of me wants to see humans walk on Mars, simply because it would be a great historical act that doesn’t involve people killing each other.

Of course, there are the arguments against the space programme. It costs a heck of a lot of money when there are issues down here on Earth that need fixing. To be honest, I sympathise with that view, although I ask a counter-question – why is it a choice between the exploration of space and the elimination of poverty, say? Why’s it never a choice between space exploration and fighting wars? Or space exploration and the continual propping up of industries that are hurting the planet?

We’re a clever species when we put our minds to it, but we seem to get locked into cycles of destruction. We seize on anything, be it religion, or politics, or race, or land to perpetuate the darker angels of our natures. Fundamentalisms that have forgetten the fundamentals add fuel to the fire. The West spends more on helping cows to live well than they do on aid to the Third World. Knowledge increases exponentially, but I’m not so convinced about wisdom – to paraphrase Smashmouth, our brains get smart but our hearts get dumb.

So I think that’s why I’m interested in the space programme, why I’d like to see us land on Mars (or something) one day. A quarter of those who’ve walked on the moon are now gone and the rest are getting no younger, and the last optimistic act of the twentieth century slips into history, and where’s the first great optimistic act of the 21st Century, which is already getting dominated by the war on terror and climate squinkiness? Well, there is one that I can think of off the top of my head – the Make Poverty History campaign, which I also hope is a great success. I don’t want humanity to have to chose between great scientific and exploratory acts and straightening out geopolitical structures that condemn millions to poverty. I want us to prioritise and do both, and sacrifice some of the other things that have scarred our collective psyche for far too long.

Meanwhile, here’s something I blogged last year on the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing:

If I could go back in time and witness any event of the 20th Century, I think the moon landing would be top of the list. Maybe it’s my inner geek, but the whole idea of looking up and seeing the moon, that big ball of rock that’s been Earth’s companion for billions of years, and knowing that human beings have actually been up there, knowing that technical ingenuity is capable of getting people over 300,000km from home and back again, with less computer processing power than most household gizmos (probably including my microwave)… It’s kinda awe-inspiring.

Today’s the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, and you can’t move for tripping over a retrospective. I’m glad we’re seeing this – it’s hard to escape the impression that we’ve all got cynical about the subject (it was too expensive, it’s boring, it was all filmed in a desert in Arizona, whatever); now at least we’re celebrating it as an achievement. Thing is, where do we go from here? The last moon landing took place in 1972 and we’ve never been back; the Shuttle’s the space equivalant of taking the bus down to the shops, and while we all love the application of space technology such as communications satellites, is there really a public hunger for this sort of thing? I’m not convinced, and that’s why, although the next step would seem to be Mars or one of its moons, I’m not holding my breath that I’ll ever see human footprints in red martian dust. NASA are committed to returning to the moon by 2018, but…

But I want to see us go back into space. I know what people are saying – it costs too much, there are problems to be solved here on Earth. Well, yeah, but we haven’t gone beyond our galactic back garden for 37 years and you know what? Those problems still need fixing. If Brown or Obama or someone came out and gave the environmental or anti-poverty equivalant of JFK’s speech at Rice Stadium, and really meant it, I’d be ecstatic. I’m not seeing it though. Maybe we live in a more cynical age, maybe we’re all jaundiced by political short-termism and careerism, I dunno.

I’m still idealistic though. I want to know why it’s always staged as a choice between space exploration (and its resulting science) and, say, eradicating AIDS. Why is it never a choice between space exploration and dropping bombs on people? Why is it never a choice between space exploration and the money we have to throw at dealing with the greed of bankers and dodgy MP expense claims and every other instance of corruption you can think of? Why can’t we do something good at the expense of something bad?

I’m not sure my generation has had it’s moment to gather around – maybe Live Aid – and there’s another generation below me that’s in the same boat. Much as I think the Internet is hugely significant, in 40 years time I really hope I’m not sitting in front of a TV documentary celebrating Facebook. What’s our big moment going to be? I’d love it if it was putting a man or woman on Mars, but you know, I’d also love it if we cured cancer or wiped out Third World debt or pioneered a clean energy source that no-one’s even thought of yet. There’s got to be something more that can unite us beyond death and Simon Cowell.

Neil, Buzz, Michael – Thank you. I just want to know who’ll be following in your small steps and giant leaps.

And as a last word, here’s Buzz Aldrin punching the chief moon-landing-denier. Remember kids, violence is, um, wrong….



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