At 02.56 GMT on July 21st, 1969, Neil Armstrong made the first human footprint on the moon, followed shortly by Buzz Aldrin. The ancient dream had been realized. 12,000 years after we crawled out of those caves, not even a single tick of the astronomical clock, we set foot upon another world. The Wright brothers’ first heavier than air flight, for a distance shorter than the wingspan of a 747, took place in December 1903. Within 66 years men had crossed a quarter of a million miles of space to walk upon the moon.
President Kennedy’s famous speech of September, 1962, had challenged America to achieve the goal “before this decade is out.” America, a nation of pioneers, could once again choose to make its own destiny instead of meekly falling in with whatever the future might hold. His country accepted that challenge, and in a decade of innovation, practised and perfected all of the techniques that would be needed to succeed.
I was in my 20s in that thrilling decade. We watched first the Mercury flights, then the Gemini ones, and finally the Apollo series. I stayed up, as did millions across the world, thrilling to those words, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was an event that united the world. There was a sense of species pride, that human beings had undertaken so difficult and dangerous a voyage of exploration, and had succeeded. We felt, indeed, that it had been “one giant leap for mankind.” If we could go to the moon, we could do anything.
The project’s costs drew some criticism, in that the money could have been spent on social housing, just as Queen Isabella could have spent her money on social housing instead of funding the explorations of Columbus, and Manchester City Football Club could be closed down, and its players sold off to fund social housing. Every achievement of humankind, be it artistic, scientific, engineering, exploration or adventure, could always have had its funds diverted instead to promoting social equality. That way we would achieve nothing, not even social equality.
There was a Cold War to be won, and the US moon landings played a part in undermining Communist morale and the belief that history was on their side. They played a part in letting us see our world as a whole, and realizing how tiny a part of the universe it occupies, and how fragile it seems.
To me one of the most telling lines from the Apollo programme was the observation made, looking at the blue and white globe of the Earth, that “Everything that ever happened took place down there.” That was where the dinosaurs were wiped out by a cosmic collision after a reign of 250m years. That was where primates first stood erect. That was where the pharaohs built pyramids and where Greeks fought Trojans. It was where Caesar was assassinated and Napoleon was defeated. It was where, more recently, Hitler, Stalin and Mao murdered their millions. It all happened on that tiny blue marble lost in the vastness of space.
It gave us a sense of being one world, and the hope must be that the anniversary of the first landings will rekindle the feeling that we share this planet. There are signs that the event is already rekindling the drive for adventure and discovery that will take us further into the exciting unknown.