At the time of the lunar landing in 1969, no one thought ahead to a fiftieth anniversary, or hardly anyone did. Instead, those not committed to depreciating the United States – as many then as now, I should think – were contemplating their faux eternity. The bobbleheads of the meejah, for instance, were looking forward to Moon bases, Mars expeditions, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, the Stars.
They looked back to the Wright Brothers. Only a few decades later, we had supersonic jets and spacecraft. Imagine what would be in a few more decades!
Both spectacles – the first heavier than air flight, and the first lunar landing – were engineering accomplishments, each impressive in its own way. But neither was what the hype specialists call a “game changer.” Rather, they were the manipulation of known technology, to produce a theatrical result.
In the Wrights’ case, the genuinely impressive thing was the demonstration of a system to control the pitch, roll, and yaw of an airplane. It was an arrangement of flaps, both elegant and comic. The many, many others who were working on winged flight had focused mostly on engines and thrust. But the real problem was not getting the craft airborne. It was getting the thing down again, without losing the pilot.
Similarly, with NASA. Flying a man to the Moon, even putting him down (however hard) on the lunar surface, was something that could have been done years before. Getting him back again to Earth, in one piece, was the real challenge.
The most impressive thing about the first pilots, and astronauts, was a spiritual quality: their courage. This is true in any life-risking stunt, whether or not the stunt itself is necessary. I admire courage.
You couldn’t have put me in that Apollo capsule. Well, no one was asking me, so far as I recall. (Did they ask the Soviet monkeys?) I did other things back then, that were foolhardy, but only fully realized AFTER the fact. None involved extra-terrestrial adventure. Nor, for that matter, would I have tried my luck on that flying bicycle contraption along that North Carolina beach.
I was happy to watch, however, in 1969 – with my heart in my throat, like a billion other spectators – and I still haven’t fully recovered from the thrill.
There is poetry in advanced engineering, and there is truth in poetry. Fifty years later it strikes me that Neil Armstrong’s rehearsed, then slightly botched, blather about “one small step for [a] man,” was essentially false. It was the kind of thing that comes out of advertising agencies. There was no “giant leap for mankind.” That was just bluster.
No, the true poetry of that event was conveyed to my ears through a crackling radio. It was understated, unselfconscious, engineering talk. And it was so unspeakably beautiful:
“Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
It was something to pin upon the board of the ages, beside Xenophon’s “Thalassa, thalassa!” It was strangely like the message that spread through the prison camps of Germany, from the shores of Normandy: “The allies have landed.” It was winged victory.
But again, it was not more than what I read next day in a Swiss newspaper – not on the front page, from which the banner headline story had been unaccountably omitted, but in the “Technik und Forschung” pages (section three). The unflappable Swiss were reasonably impressed by the Americans, but presented the landing, correctly, as a feat of engineering.
I was following the story closely in all media then available; I still get flashes of Walter Cronkite and the rest of the earthly crew, stage-managing the public euphoria. What sticks out farthest in my memory, however, were the discordant words of John Maddox, longtime editor of the British science weekly, “Nature.”
He, alone, was looking forward fifty years. He said that, once the Apollo program was over, no one would be landing on the Moon again. This was because there would be no point to it.
“This business of carting people around the solar system is going to remain enormously difficult,” he patiently explained, “and for the foreseeable future there’s no worthwhile purpose.”
Pan Am was promising holiday moonflights by the year 2000. Dr. Maddox thought a more reasonable estimate would be another 250 years (if then). There are still no lunar vacations. Pan Am itself is long gone.
Maddox was the same curmudgeon who believed that the planet was far more resilient in its ecology, that it has a far greater carrying capacity than the environmental scaremongers of those days imagined. He dropped acid sarcasm on predictions of catastrophic overpopulation, famine, fatal shortages of this and that. He had the remarkable ability to look at plain facts, including the big facts of life, in an unexcitable, deadpan way. (Everything then predicted to run out is now significantly cheaper and more plentiful.)
An atheist he was, this Maddox gentleman, or so I have been told. Yet he had at least this one Christian attribute, which is not sufficiently admired. He could not be dazzled by pompous, technological claims, or by people who scatter a confetti of unknowable statistics. (What counts as “science” today.)
For in the Christian view, Man, in the absence of God, remains a tiny worm. He is the merest spark-fly in the face of the cosmos. In moments, he may seem a flying worm; a moth transfixed by a candle. He may entertain himself in the vanity of dreams, but in the end he is dust, and to dust he must return.
As Thomas Gray noted, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
That, I have lifted from his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” more than 250 years ago. It remains true, and will be true through all centuries to come, in this world constrained by space and time. “Science” is a passing fad; we forget this poetry at our peril.
*Image: The lunar landing from Georges Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon