I was born in August 1971. By this point in time, there had been four successful crewed moon landings (Apollos 11, 12, 14 and 15). There were a further two after I was born — Apollo 16 in April 1972 and Apollo 17, in December of the same year. I can therefore stake a claim, if I wished, to be a child of the moon landings, having been born in a period when the impossible had begun to become almost normalised, when human aspiration had moved from ‘we will…’ to ‘we have…’
Having appeared on this Earth in the small window within which we managed to achieve this remarkable feat (and the choice of ‘we’ here is very much intentional), I naturally have no memory of the circumstances of humans setting foot on the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps, however, have impacted on my life in immeasurable ways, as they have with pretty much all of us, in ushering in a new phase in the human story and how we have allowed our technologies to subsequently shapes our societies.
Looking back in 2019 — 50 years on from that giant leap for mankind — how do we remember that first instance of a small step for one man that resonated so widely? There are a myriad of ways with which to look back at Apollo 11’s lunar discoveries. This piece interrogates that question by picking up some of the lenses that can be used to consider varying perspectives for comprehending the meaning and resonance of the first moon landing. It was initiated by the anniversary recollections earlier this summer, and is published before the anniversary year is out.
Humans have long been the most exploratory of creatures, seeking information or resources from beyond our own environs throughout our history. The Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks or Romans open many of the Western-centric historical tales of human exploration. Indeed Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ tells the tale of the king of Ithaca’s decade-long journey home, following the Trojan War. Sequel to ‘The Iliad’, the story of the sacking of Troy, these two works are widely considered as the starting point of the Western literature canon. Epic voyages were also conducted by Chinese travellers that overlapped with these proto-historic eras, but those have been less told to Western ears. Later, the Vikings were great explorers of the Northern Hemisphere while the Polynesians explored much of Central and South Pacific. The European ‘Age of Discovery’ led to Europeans exploring and in many cases subsequently conquering vast tracts of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. These claims of ‘discovery’ were made despite the prior existence of many other native or settled peoples in those places before the arrival of European explorers.
As new lands or territories were identified, new exploratory challenges were set and in many cases ultimately conquered, such as reaching the South Pole (1911) or the scaling of Everest (1953). The first moon landing, in July 1969, can be dropped into a linear path that follows on from these other human quests, albeit one that takes a different trajectory by being the first to take place beyond the confines of the planet’s atmosphere. Our curiosities as a species have taken us around the globe, to its highest or harshest points, to the depths of its oceans, and to its sole moon. Whilst we have not set foot on it again since 1972, it seems almost foolish to suggest that we will never do so again, some day. We may well even take ourselves beyond it.
Of course, if we consider the European Age of Expansion, such periods of exploration were invariably undertaken in support of colonial expansion or to resource and sustain an empire. Can we look at the 1969 achievement in the same light? Very much so, if we choose to do so. The 1969 landing can be seen as a projection of American power that highlighted the frontiers left to claim in the name of imperial conquest. We can look at the Second World War as the zenith of the European powers, after which the respective European empires began to rapidly fall apart and the balance of global power shifted to a bi-polar world that was largely shaped either around the American or Soviet axes. Capitalism vs Communism, to crudely summarise this duality, in turn triggered the Space Race, a competition between the two Cold War rivals to achieve advantages in spaceflight — via which the newest and other as-yet-untapped frontiers could be reached. The Soviet Union took an early lead by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 and the first human in space four years later, but the Americans achieved the most significant milestone in this race by first landing humans on the Moon.
A touchpoint in the history of human exploration is a very wide angle lens through which to look at 20th July 1969. ‘Moon landing as a by-product of the Cold War’ narrows the focus a little — an impressive feat for one nation striving for supremacy over another superpower on the global stage, and undoubtedly a defining act to tip the perceived balance of power in favour of the Americans, but just one of those things that a big and powerful country was bound to do at that historical moment, given that it hadn’t yet been done at that point.
We can narrow the focus of the lens slightly further and look at American motivations outside of their competition with the Soviet Union. We can draw a line from Kennedy to Nixon and see how the strive for setting foot on the Moon runs in an almost parallel track with the story of the Vietnam War — itself another by-product of the Cold War again the Soviet Union. Kennedy pledged before Congress in May 1961 to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out at the same time as he was authorising secret operations against the Viet Cong. Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, escalated the bombing of Vietnam in 1965 and significantly increased troop numbers in 1966, while astronauts Cooper and Conrad on board Gemini 5 set a record of almost eight days in space in 1965, and Neil Armstrong achieves the first docking between two spacecraft in 1966 as part of the Gemini 8 mission. In 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 were killed in a cabin fire a month before their planned launch, while a few months later, huge protests against the South-East Asian land war swept numerous American cities.
Nixon came to power vowing to ‘end the war and win the peace in the Pacific’, following turning points such as 1968’s Tet Offensive and the US massacre at Mai Lai, and rising anti-war demonstrations across the United States. He arguably managed to provide a moment of national distraction from the war by being President during that moon landing, speaking with Armstrong and Aldrin during their moonwalk by telephone and ensuring that the whole event was televised. It could be considered ironic that Nixon used the power of television to seize the moment given that he was widely considered to have been defeated by television in 1960, having lost out in a face off in the first televised presidential debates by the man that would ultimately set his country on a path to conquer the lunar frontier, John F. Kennedy. Then again, if we look at how Trump has harnessed social media to his advantage to control the narrative following the precedent set of harnessing a new communications tool for electoral gain by his Democratic predecessor, we can see that this is what successor presidents do in new communications technology paradigms.
Inner space, outer space, and no space
Another traceable track from the era is the search for inner space that ran in a similar parallel to the search for outer space, journeys perhaps in opposition to each other, but nevertheless intertwined.
Starting in 1953, as the Cold War was fully underway and an armistice had brought the fighting from the the actual hot Korean War to an end, the CIA had begun experimenting with narcotics such as LSD-25 on human subjects, as part of Project MKUltra. These were intended as experiments in mind control, and were effectively another variant on American efforts against Soviet-led communism (also manifest in the Vietnam War). In 1954, English writer Aldous Huxley published his book ‘The Doors Of Perception’, about his psychedelic experiences with mescaline, the active psychedelic agent of the peyote cactus. The experiments were an attempt to break down the barriers of ego and therefore hopefully attain greater degrees of awareness. The Space Race between the two superpowers is considered to have begun in earnest the following year, with the Soviet response to a 1955 American announcement of intent to launch artificial satellites.
Explorations of inner space via psychedelics and of outer space via superpower rivalry can both therefore be seen to have their roots in the 1950s. The CIA’s experiments were obviously conducted in secret, and Huxley’s experiments were intentionally somewhat clinical, whatever their philosophical intent. Psychedelics, however, would soon seep out into popular usage via the burgeoning counterculture that was emerging at the time from California. Following the publication of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, author Ken Kesey began hosting parties in his California home with friends and other figures of renown who collectively came to be known as the Merry Pranksters. These parties were known as ‘Acid Tests’, and are credited with popularising the wider usage of LSD. Other renowned proponents were Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, Merry Pranksters’ house band The Grateful Dead, and even ultimately The Beatles themselves. The psychedelic era peaked with the major music festival Woodstock in August 1969, an event that attracted an audience of over 400,000 and which happened a month on from the Moon landing.
Whatever their place in popular culture before the first moon landing, space flight and the idea of a man on the Moon had much wider cultural impacts as humans achieved ever greater successes in spaceflight. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was released, drawing on themes such as existentialism, human evolution, and artificial intelligence. Kubrick’s opus drew explicitly on Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ in titling his work, aligning exploration across unexplored oceans with the vast mysteries of space. David Bowie’s first UK single to enter the pop charts was inspired by Kubrick’s ‘2001’. ‘Space Oddity’, which told a tale of astronaut Major Tom becoming cut off from his communication connection with the Earth and drifting off into space, was released five days before the Apollo 11 launch. Bowie drew on space themes and other-worldliness throughout his career, awakening moonage daydreams in several generations of young people.
While Bowie drew on the otherworldliness of being out in space, with ‘Whitey On The Moon’, Gil Scott-Heron drew parallels instead between what he saw as the white excess of lunar exploration and the impoverishment of black communities back on Earth:
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
This perspective views the Apollo endeavours through a lens of racial inequality, using the occasion to shine a spotlight on the huge imbalance in living standards and social disparities between America’s still largely segregated white and black populations. In the call-and-response spoken poem, Scott-Heron’s protagonist lists the granular details of his impoverished life in the calls, with variations on ‘Whitey on the Moon’ being uttered in the responses. The poem concludes with an exasperated attempt at revenge, by sending Whitey his doctor bills. In implying that black Americans are far less likely to have health insurance than white Americans, Scott-Heron uses the moon landings as a device to highlight wider plights. We may also recall the march on Florida’s Cape Kennedy the day before the launch of Apollo 11 led by Martin Luther King’s successor, Ralph Abernathy, as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Intended to highlight the contrast between the billions that white America was spending on space flight with the poverty that millions of African Americans remained mired in, Abernathy told a rally at the launch site:
We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.
Using the Apollo astronauts’ achievements to highlight racial disparities is a perspective that would have run somewhat against the grain of the myth-making narrative at the time, and voices such as Scott-Heron’s or Abernathy’s remained largely muted from the 50th anniversary celebrations in the summer of 2019. That said, at least Scott-Heron was depicted performing the track in First Man, a 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong.
If the story of ‘man on the Moon’ was expressly one of a white man, it is invariably a male tale overall too, with female parts in the story often untold. Valentina Tereshkova (1963) was the first woman to orbit the Earth, Svetlana Savitskaya (1984) was the first woman to walk in space, and Christina Koch and Jessica Meir (2019) conducted the first woman-only space walk, but no woman has yet set foot on the Moon itself. Dava Sobel writes of the femininity of the moon, from the gendering of the noun itself in Romance languages to alignments between monthly lunar phases with the human menstrual cycle, and of how lunar exploration has been a decidedly masculine domain so far. However, with the Artemis program, she notes that a NASA-led effort to land a woman on the Moon by 2024 is now finally underway. The 2016 movie ‘Hidden Figures’ highlighted the contribution that three female African-American mathematicians (or ‘human computers’, as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were also known) who worked at NASA during the Space Race era and whom faced challenges in being accepted for playing a role within a national mission during the era of segregation. Other women that played vital roles in men being able to walk on the Moon at all included Jamye Flowers Coplin (Apollo 11’s crew secretary), Margaret Hamilton (lead programmer on the Apollo Guidance Computer), Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt (the first female engineer at NASA’s mission control), and JoAnn Morgan (the only woman in Apollo 11’s launch firing room).
With the distance of hindsight, a longer lens can start to fill in the gaps that should not have been missed at the time.
Our lenses for looking back on the moon landings in this piece have so far been historical, cultural or socio-political. However, they can also be personal.
Irish Times writer Fintan O’Toole described his recollections of the event from the perspective of being an 11-year old Dubliner at the time. O’Toole recalls that the ‘splashdown’ (in which the Apollo crewmen reconnected with the planet after their lunar adventure with their vehicle landing in the Pacific) had a far more dramatic effect on his youthful mind than the landing on the Moon’s surface had. With Kennedy’s pledge of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth’, the second part of the pledge had seemed more improbable than the first to the young O’Toole. For O’Toole, in returning safely to our blue planet, the astronauts had led the rest of us to rediscover the Earth.
Guardian writer Suzanne Moore was also 11 years old during the event, living in Ipswich rather than Dublin. Her revisiting of the historical moment took the form of digging back out a childhood scrapbook, where she had meticulously recorded every scrap of information should could come across about the event, and reconnecting with how her young self had been obsessively absorbed by the moon landings. Moore wrote that ‘We all see that same moon and we are all made somehow both bigger and smaller by this knowledge. The ancients knew. And I did too. We could touch the sky’, a comment that contains both a sense of the wisdom of the ages and of the innocence of childhood. She looks back from a vantage point of 2019, ‘a world that stares inwards, full of smaller leaders with smaller ideas who think only of walls and fences and barriers, who police the parameters of our imagination and abilities’, and implores us to look again up at the night sky in wonder, at the very same moon.
American novelist Kathleen Alcott was born in Northern California, 19 years after Armstrong’s giant leap. She was ‘a girl raised in the fallout of liberal northern California’s anti-war revolution’ for whom the likes of the Apollo astronauts had been objects of distain (‘products of the military-industrial complex, upholders of white patriarchy’). However, in researching a novel on the Apollo program, she found herself surprisingly coming to rather revere these celestial explorers instead. This emerged from finding a serenity in the descriptions of the brutalist psychological testing that the likes of Armstrong had had to endure in order to prepare them for their voyage, and which reminded her of her childhood craving for order in a family environment of anything but. Her recounting of her research intertwines a personal narrative with the wider national story, and touches on many of the themes raised in this piece — the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the resistance to it, the parallel psychedelic voyages of the era undertaken by her parents amongst the many others, Kennedy’s dreams and Abernathy’s march.
My own parents had married a few months prior to that one giant leap, and were setting off on the first tentative steps of a life together as newlyweds. In writing this piece, I asked them both for their memories of the Moon landing, and what — if anything — it had meant to them. My mother told me:
I only have a vague memory (…of…) Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon. I was 25 years old so I should remember it but communications were different in 1969 and we had only just got married a few months previously, so there were other things to think about…We didn’t have a television and we weren’t close to any shops to buy a paper and I had managed to secure some supply teaching for those last two weeks of term. We had a portable radio and I imagine we would have heard the news on the Home Service or Radio 4 as it is now. Perhaps we would have read more about it from a weekend paper. The photos would have seemed quite thrilling in those days and I’m sure we would have marvelled at the event.
Easy to imagine in our current Information Age with our always-on communications technologies, but news of the Americans in space would have been a little harder to come by than when compared with today.
My father was raised during the 1950s by Communist-sympathising parents — considerably more common then, at least on the British left, than might feel like the case today — somewhat before the full extent of ‘Uncle Joe’s gulags’ would have been laid bare. His upbringing, an environment of rather more pro- the further side of the Iron Curtain than the nearer, would have resulted in him seeing the Americans as the ‘bad guys’. When I asked him for his memories of the time, he told me that he had actually been more impressed by Yuri Gagarin’s Space Race milestone of being the first human to journey into outer space than by Armstrong and Aldrin’s giant steps some eight years later. That and the fact that he was also more focusing on setting up in adult life than dreaming of the stars.
Two personal perspectives pretty far removed from O’Toole and Moore’s childhood senses of wonder.
Other giant leaps
The image above was taken from the window of Apollo 11. However, it was an image taken around seven months prior to the moon landing that was to be later credited with having a pivotal impact on the launch of the environmental movement. Earthrise, as the iconic image became known, showed the Earth suspended above the moon, with ‘(it)’s marbled beauty leap(ing) from the darkness of space, amplified by the bleak, almost monochromatic lunar horizon in the foreground’. National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry likened the image to ‘humanity seeing itself in a mirror for the first time’. On the 50th anniversary of the image being taken, Nature magazine described Earthrise as showing the isolation, vulnerability and irreplaceability of the Earth to a new generation. This lens, taking an object from the era rather than a specific event, looks — almost — not at the Moon itself, but as Fintan O’Toole might appreciate, the place from which the voyagers came.
In an essay titled ‘The Moon and Man’, Primo Levi suggested that ‘in a few days common consciousness has changed, as always happens after a qualitative leap’, as he marvelled at the achievement. He looked at the wider impact of the landing on humanity as a whole, stating that ‘(f)or good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress towards justice and peace’. It is perhaps a delicious irony, if we look again through the Cold War lenses at this act, that landing a man on the Moon could also be seen as contributing towards bringing humanity together as a whole and the act being a landmark towards a form of world peace.
In late 2019, it certainly feels as if humanity could do with coming together rather more than it seems to be capable of at the moment. It could equally have felt the same in 1969, to those seeing the Vietnam War and parallel generational upheavals as calamitous. Peppering the darkest of times with a reach for the stars may be a distraction from them, but it can also act as inspiration amidst the darkness. Despite having not returned to the Moon since 1972, we humans are clearly still striving and exploring further. Jisc’s Martin Hamilton, for example, writes of private companies that are close to launching initiatives in space tourism and other forms of future space exploration, of a likelihood within the coming decade of ‘more and more people routinely living and working off-world’, a prospect with huge implications for research and innovation.
In drawing this lengthy reflection to a close, we end on linguistic impact and the Moon landing as metaphor. Supposedly originating in the unusually high balls hit by Dodgers’ outfielder Wally Moon, a ‘moon shot’ later transitioned from being a baseballing term to one synonymous with space exploration. In more recent times, moon shots have transcended the original Apollo context, and taken on a wider association with unlikely, hard or expensive tasks that have great potential impact. Alex Davies in Wired (critically) recounts Obama’s use of the term for launching an effort to cure cancer, recent Democratic presidential candidates invoking it for efforts to stop climate change, and Google’s renowned technological moon shot investment projects, such as self-driving cars or hot air balloons for Internet connectivity (now spun off into a company simply known as X). As Davies states, ‘moon shot’ has effectively become ‘shorthand for trying to do something that’s really hard and maybe a bit crazy’, which brings us to the current British Prime Minister.
Whilst running to succeed Theresa May in July 2019, capitalising on the then vogue for moon landing nostalgia, Johnson claimed that the Apollo landings showed that Britain could solve the problem of avoiding a hard Irish border on Britain exiting the EU, given enough determination. ‘If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border’, he suggested. This simplification of the original Apollo program somewhat ignores the history of challenge and complexity that preceded Apollo 11 (including the death of the three crew members at a launch rehearsal for Apollo 1) as well as the proportion of British and Irish people opposed to Brexit happening at all. Following his ascension to 10 Downing St, Johnson sidestepped the complexity of the challenge by accepting the de facto placing of border controls in the Irish Sea for goods passing between mainland Britain and Ireland in order to move the issue on. It seems that unpicking the Irish compromise enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement was too complex even for a moon shot.
This piece has used a variety of different lenses to look back on 1969’s moon landing, to explore some of the different ways that we look back on such a seismic event and attempt an answer at the question of how it is that we might recall it, given the distance we now have. We have considered lunar expeditions as an iteration of the innately human urge for exploration. We have seen the Apollo 11 mission as a product of America’s military-industrial complex, and a driver of its Space Race with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, we have pondered that landing men on the Moon might have also been deployed as an effective distraction from an imperial power mired in a guerilla war, as Vietnam took its toll on America and exacerbated its social divides. This has led us to also look at this human achievement as a symbol of white male excess.
Conversely, we have seen how the voyage into outer space ran roughly in parallel with a search for inner space. We have seen the 1969 moon landings as an activity that fuelled childhood wonder, or merely as a blip in the current events backdrop to ordinary lives. We have taken the wider moment that the Apollo 11 mission was a part of as the touch point for a dawning environmental consciousness, and of the landings themselves as a qualitative leap for human consciousness itself — one of those events that just stretches the horizon of everyone’s imagination. Finally, we have seen the endeavour of reaching the Moon, a seemingly impossible feat at the time, becoming metaphor itself, part of our linguistic tapestry.
One lens that we haven’t used here is looking at Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins’s voyage as being just another cog in the nostalgia industry, keeping the wheels of our culture moving by forever looking back. 2018 saw the final year of a four-year focus on the World War One centenary. Events of such gravitas as a world war or a moon landing resonate far more widely than something like the 50th anniversary of the release of a record (as The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ reached this year too). All the serious publications want to have their pieces on what these events mean to us today, while the broadcasters televise this nostalgia from whichever angles they can, and the merchandising tie-ins proliferate like dandelions in an abandoned garden.
I got caught up in it all too, reading all these pieces about this thing that happened shortly before I was born, and that’s largely what prompted me to write this.
I somehow doubt that I’ll have to wait another 50 years to experience the wonder of humans once again setting foot on the lunar surface. So here’s to the next giant leap. Hopefully this time, it’s one for womankind too.