On July 16, I stood on Cocoa Beach in Florida and looked across the water. Fifty years previously, the Saturn V rocket took off from there, propelling Mike Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards the moon. I was there to record an episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage for Radio 4, renamed The Infinite Moonkey Cage for one show only because if a pun is possible, BBC guidelines insist on it.
A few minutes later, I was sat in a small hotel conference room with Gerry Griffin, an Apollo flight director, Rusty Schweickart of Apollo 9, and Andy and Jan Aldrin, children of Buzz. Though the show was broadcast on the anniversary of the lunar landing, this was not a discussion dominated by nostalgia, a revelling in the past of “one small step”, it was as much about our future.
For Schweickart, the greatest Apollo achievement was not the first footprint on the moon, it was three missions back, when Apollo 8 took the photograph that became known as Earthrise.
If you’re melting somewhere this evening, you might as well do it in the company of @robinince, @Kevin_Fong, @helenczerski, @chrislintott and @SuzieImberSpace chatting about Arthur C Clarke on the latest episode of #BookShambles https://t.co/zIeomm7Duq
— Cosmic Shambles (@cosmicshambles) July 25, 2019
Commander of the mission, Frank Borman, had told his crew he didn’t want anyone looking out of the window. William Anders and Jim Lovell slyly took turns to peer at the Earth. Catching sight of the Earthrise, Anders asked for the camera. Borman insisted that no photograph should be taken, but Anders ignored that. Many now consider it the most important photograph ever taken.
It was an inspiration for the environmental movement. It gave humanity a sense of the fragility of their home. Though taken from a parochial distance considering the size of the solar system, let alone the Milky Way, it showed a planet with no signs of the borders that limit human thinking to tribal proportions. The resonance remains – now is a good time to be reminded of it.
Gil Scott-Heron’s poem, Whitey on the Moon, questioned the money spent so humans could get to the moon when people in poverty where dying from simple needs of medicine. Somewhere in those lunar missions though, there is another message, a message not just of technical ambition and future interplanetary possibilities.
Though the Apollo missions were politically driven by a need to beat the Soviet Union, when the astronauts returned and travelled the world, people of many nations said to them, “WE have been to the moon.” The achievement usurped American nationalism and became a human achievement. Somewhere in these space-flight ambitions, there may be a message of unity, too, though perhaps that will only truly occur when we are brought together by fear of an asteroid strike like the one that did for the dinosaurs.
In Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, inspiration for 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is an obelisk placed on the moon by extraterrestrials. Should a nearby species venture from its planet and make contact with this obelisk, it means they have an ambition that makes it worthy of contact. Looking at much of our discourse now, I think you might understand why the aliens haven’t visited yet. They may be waiting until we look a little more hospitable.
One of the sweetest, and most human memories of the first walk on the moon came from Andy Aldrin. I asked Andy how he felt as an 11-year-old watching his dad on the moon. He was worried. It was not the worry of whether his dad would come back or if there would be a catastrophic accident. As he watched him bouncing on the moon, he noticed a cable near his feet and thought, ‘I hope my dad doesn’t trip over while he’s on the moon, everyone is watching. I’ll never hear the last of it at school.’
Can’t being human be wonderful some days?
The Infinite Moonkey Cage is on BBC iPlayer now