Society

The view from Billinudgel

Shooting beyond the Moon
Reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission as Mars beckons

Apollo 11 Moon landing. Source: SDASM Archives

I sometimes think I was the only one who was not gobsmacked. On that day 50 years ago when mankind kicked the Moon, I was working in the Canberra press gallery, keeping an eye on the television for the news, but never doubting the outcome.

My moment of epiphany had occurred some 12 years earlier, when I watched the first Sputnik cross the night sky. My mother murmured: “You’d feel like God if you’d put it there,” and I, already a teenage atheist, agreed that there was something truly wondrous happening in our world.

I had been a stargazer since my childhood – I had ambitions to become an astronomer. For various reasons that hope was dashed, but I became a devotee of science fact and fiction. And by 1969 I regarded the Moon as pretty much old hat – I was thinking about new solar systems, new galaxies, new universes. So when Neil Armstrong declared, “One small step for man,” I concurred: it was just the first, tentative move into the space age.

But the wider pledge from the landing on our satellite – “We came in peace for all mankind” – seemed more problematic. If there was any peace, it was only a blip – a momentary truce in the Cold War that was fuelling the horrors of Vietnam and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

And for all mankind? Well, many nations and individuals were involved, but the event was seen as an American triumph: it was the Stars and Stripes that was planted in the Sea of Tranquility, not the flag of the United Nations.

Still, I felt, as the man said when the bus full of lawyers went over the cliff, it was a good start. Now, perhaps, we could get on with it: the new frontier had been opened. But after a brief flurry of activity, nothing much happened for almost half a century. Partly because there was too much to be done on Earth, but also because the will was not maintained.

The impetus driven by John F. Kennedy lapsed under successive presidents, and much of what progress there was came from the Russians. The satellite programs continued, and were greatly enhanced, but even the Moon was abandoned. And, although the planets were explored by robot technology, people remained confined to the immediate neighbourhood.

But now, at last, there are signs of movement – the Moon is back on the agenda, and Mars beckons. The great promise of space travel may be revived – and this time, really, for all humankind. Apollo 11 was an extraordinary technological achievement, but it was a product of war and driven, ultimately, by the military – to secure a national advantage over rivals.

The wonderful irony is that it led to a new age of international scientific cooperation. The space stations have crossed borders that were previously seen as impregnable. And my children may see a multinational, multicultural settlement on the Red Planet named for the god of war – this would truly be gobsmacking.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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