When I look back to the late 1960’s there are two overriding themes that colour my memories of those times: the music and The Moon. With the music, I can never be certain that my memories do not sometimes play tricks on me, allowing me a bigger memory bank than my actual experience could really summon up. After all, I was only 9 years old when the decade ended. Could I really have known all those great songs? Wasn’t I really more interested in The New Seekers than Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles? Probably. Then again, I was extremely hip and astute! Still, I’ll concede that The Blue Mink rocked my world more than The Pink Floyd. One thing I am certain about, however, is the powerful effect that the Apollo space programme had on my imagination.
Before Man reached the Moon there was the ‘Race For The Moon' and I well recall the early Apollo missions as they first orbited the Earth and then made those initial, tentative, treks our to our satellite all those hundreds of thousands of miles across space. All this was transmitted to us via our black and white TV screens but the sheer enthusiasm behind the missions was sufficient to engender much excitement, even in a small, rather ignorant, young boy in the west of England. One sensed the enormous achievement and the very real danger that lurked behind each blast-off into space. It was all so exciting and new that every lift-off from Cape Canaveral/Kennedy (which IS it?) was shown live on the BBC. There was this feeling that once the human race actually got there, everything would change. This was ‘the future’ happening now.
I was very pleased to find that Andrew Smith felt much the same as I did. In his book, Moondust, Smith brings back to life those halcyon days of space exploration and, in so doing, examines the meaning of the moon landings for us now and what it may have meant back then. Smith spent a lot of time tracking down the surviving Apollo astronauts, hoping to get something deep from their individual psyches. He reminds us that there are now only nine people left on Earth who have ever walked on the Moon and, given their age, there will very soon be no one here who has ever been there. For some Moon veterans, like Buzz Aldrin, there is the disappointment that we have, as yet, not been back there. Aldrin campaigns tirelessly for a return but one imagines that economics and politics will dictate that any future missions are long way off. Of even greater interest, for me, is how it must feel to be the ‘second’ man on the Moon. One of Aldrin’s problems is, after all, that he is not Neil Armstrong. Smith tries to get under Aldrin’s skin and finds a deeply troubled man.
On a happier plain, there is Alan Bean (the first man to fall over on the Moon and, thus, the coolest Moon walker, in my opinion) who is far more sanguine about the whole thing and has basically dropped out and is now a highly successful artist. Mind you, he only ever seems to paint pictures of his Moon experiences, so one can only guess at the sheer depth of meaning it all has for him. Then there are people like Michael Collins who never actually set foot on the Moon but merely orbited it alone in the command module. Those singular individuals who were stuck up there while their colleagues gained all the kudos on the surface have a real tale to tell. After all, as they floated around to the far side of the Moon, they became more alone than any human being in history. How does that feel? Strangely, we never really find out. These fellows are allergic to too much probing. This isn’t really a problem for the book, however, as every bit of silence just seems to make our imaginations so much larger. Isn’t this what it all means for us now? The great dream of genuine human endeavour; the chance to truly ponder the unknown; the quest is as spiritual as it is scientific. I certainly felt that, to a certain degree, even as a child. Now the missions are part of history those feelings have grown ever stronger. I have always felt that there is gulf between those who can remember ‘before’ Man walked on the Moon and those to whom it is merely part of history. The younger generations lack the sense of awe and fear that went with just not knowing. After, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were telling us the world could end as soon as Armstrong set his foot down in the dust. I was never sure why they thought this (maybe Man’s hubris had something to do with it) but I remember being pretty scared as he bobbed down the lunar module’s steps. On the subject of the first man on the Moon not enough is really revealed by Smith. Armstrong seems to be a rather strange man but, who wouldn’t be, if one was carrying the historical baggage that he does? He seems to have very little poetry in his soul, which might disappoint us dreamers but is probably why he was chosen to do his particular job in the first place. They needed a job done.
There are, of course, those who would have us believe that the US never went to Moon at all. There are plenty of web-sites making such claims so I don’t need to provide any links, just ‘Google’ them. It’s easy to get drawn into the conspiracy theories but none that I have read really make any kind of sense. There are plenty of prosaic explanations for most of the anomalies in the photos of Aldrin and co. bouncing around up there. Others believe they went up there but still staged the event for TV in Hollywood anyway. I’m not sure why this would be a good idea. Some say the amount of radiation that would have hit them would have killed them. There are a million theories as to why it never really happened. Personally, I believe it all really did occur, if only because for the USA it had to happen. There was a perceived political imperative to get there before the USSR. Now, if the whole thing was faked, don’t you think the Soviets would have known about it and told the rest of us? If you still see conspiracy there then madness is just around the corner.
What ever made the Americans go to the Moon, I prefer to remain one of the dreamers and believe that, somewhere, the need to merely ‘reach for the stars’ made us look out into space and, for once, try to shake off our shackles and fly. Hopefully, we’ll reach out there again soon and do it in the spirit of the poet as much as the scientist. It seems that, for some astronauts at least, the process is so transforming that the scientist becomes the poet anyway and this is a pretty good