Allow me start this prose by admitting my age. Despite my youthful looks and childish demeanour, I am a grand age of thirty-eight. Yes, thirty-eight. I know, I know, I don’t believe it either, but seriously, I am. I’ve just about gotten over it, so you should too.
But this assertion of frailty and senility struck me recently when I realised I was born just shy of twelve years prior to Apollo 11 coming into the Moon’s orbit. That moment when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped from their Lunar Module and made the world gasp in awe at their – and NASAs – achievement.
We’ve all seen the footage, we’ve all heard the phrase that Armstrong spoke. And it scares me a little to think that it all happened just (a little more than) a decade before I came to be.
It scares me because of the one simple question I have been asking myself a lot recently. Perhaps it is on my mind because of the anniversary that is almost upon us and the fact that the Moon landing is being written and spoken about a lot at the moment. But I keep coming back to one thought:
What have we done since?
As in, seriously, what have we – human beings, homo sapiens, mankind, people, whatever – what have we achieved since that momentous occasion?
To give the question a little context, let’s look at two facts that vaguely relate to Apollo 11, and Apollo 11 itself.
- 1903 – The Wright brothers took to the air in a series of short flights in a powered aircraft.
- 1939 – Erich Warsitz pilots the first flight in a jet-powered aircraft.
- 1969 – Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin are the first humans to walk on an object that isn’t Earth.
It took us 66 years from first leaving the ground in a contraption to getting to the Moon. But between 1969 and the present day, what has genuinely happened? What positive moment has occurred that has made me, you, all of us stand back and go “bloody hell, this is a moment”?
Maybe Concorde? A collaboration between the British and French to build a commercial aircraft that can travel at mach-2. Certainly amazing, certainly a landmark event. Being British myself, it is certainly something to be proud of. Of course the event that led to its demise is something to never be forgotten and the lives lost on that day over France are not to be ignored. But ultimately, I do believe Concorde to be something of a ‘success’, despite its gross inefficiency, poor management and the ultimate disaster which caused untold suffering to those who lost loved ones.
But really, Concorde? It isn’t quite… well it isn’t quite up there with Apollo 11, is it? And to be fair, Concorde was being developed around about the same time as NASAs Apollo missions. So we can’t really say it has happened since.
So what else, what other event has come close? Preferably global, absolutely positive, and totally awe-inspiring.
Of course we can all say 9/11. The horrific events of that day are etched into our memories and will never – even for a Brit on the other side of the Atlantic – be forgotten. But I don’t want to talk about negatives. I don’t want to dwell on the disgusting and terrible. I want to celebrate, as NASA and the world did in 1969.
What about the Internet, or rather, the World Wide Web? The interconnected network’s origins go back to before Apollo 11s time, but let’s use the colloquial term and talk about the internet.
Yes, what an incredible tool. How do we survive without it, how are you reading this without it? The commonly depicted scenario being of a household when the line goes down and family members actually have to audibly speak to one another. That age-old skill called conversation.
Certainly and without question, the internet is something that as changed the world. It has made us all go woah, and I am quite proud to say I remember a time before instant connectivity. Even before delayed connectivity (dial-up, anyone?).
The internet has altered our lives so much, so much more than ever imagined, it should surely be one of those things that fits the question. It is (largely) positive, it is certainly global, and I do believe it is something that has made people go “woah”. The trouble is though, it didn’t happen quickly. As in, you can’t look at one moment in time and say that was the “woah” moment. The internet developed slowly over time, as did everything else that goes with it.
But the thought of the internet brings me back to space travel, because without it, the internet wouldn’t be what it is today. Satelites control much of our day-to-day lives and what we call the internet is part of a much more global and much more complex system of electronic devices talking to each other.
And this goes further. Because although humans revisited the Moon for a few years after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the cost/benefit of continuing the missions swung around and since 1972, no human has left a footprint on the Moon’s surface. But we have explored. We have been further, seen things and garnered knowledge that should be celebrated.
NASA are still functional, they are still sending unmanned craft into the solar system and even planning manned missions back to the Moon and on to Mars. To think that the Voyagers are somewhere out there makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand. And that is something to be proud of. I do think the Voyager twins are a momentous occasion.
The first sibling was launched on August 20th, 1977, the second launched a couple weeks later on September 5th. It was actually Voyager 2 that was launched first, but on a trajectory that would eventually see it overtaken by Voyager 1.
Each craft visited many planets and moons and after they had completed their missions and found themselves in the Kuiper Belt at the far edge of our solar system, NASA shut down most of their controls and allowed them to speed off into interstellar space.
Just prior to Voyager 1 being freed from its leash, Carl Sagan famously requested the greatest selfie ever taken, shot on Valentines Day in 1990 at a distance of around 6 billion kilometers.
Amazingly, each probe is still alive and only recently NASA communicated with them. V1 is around 13.5 billion kilometers from Earth as I type*, and V2 a little behind at 11.2 billion kilometers. They are travelling at around 36,000mph and are, quite frankly, something awe-inspiring.
But, as far as I can think of, that is it. There have been other space missions that are as equally impressive, but none come close to transporting a human being to another planet/moon. Even the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, as impressive as they are, they aren’t quite the same as Apollo 11. Nor are any other events that I can think of that come close to that occasion in July 1969.
I do remember the Berlin Wall coming down, but honestly, the reunification of Germany just isn’t as incredible. LGBT+ rights and the end of racism and prejudice? Well, I think we all know that while we have progressed, we’re not quite there yet. Working out how to prevent the destruction of the planet… again, we aren’t there yet. Discovering the Higgs Boson at the LHC in Switzerland? Again, impressive and I love that kind of thing. But it wasn’t a landmark, televisual spectacle, was it?
I fear we have stalled as a species, only finding ways of destroying our planet and warring with each other in new and innovative ways. Have we lost our way, have we lost our inspiration? Have we really lost our passion?
I hope not. I hope in my lifetime I get to witness one of those moments that so many did almost fifty years ago. Going by averages, I have around 40 years left, so erm, NASA, crack on…
*Quite possibly, the greatest webpage ever created.