TELEVISION / A small step for a spud, a giant leap for mankind

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE Russians put a dog into space, the Americans weren't going to take it lying down. Capitalist science responded at once, posing a pooch in spectacles in front of a folded newspaper reporting the Russian triumph. Sure, the Reds might be ahead in space but our Stupid Gag Technology was second to none. There didn't seem to be much else the Americans could do at the time - on the evidence of the early tests, their own rocket design was essentially a giant stick of dynamite with a pointy bit at the top and the letters USA down the side.

One Small Step (BBC 2), the first of a short series of programmes celebrating the first moon landing, began with the genuine consternation and fear the Russian achievement caused in the United States, a public shock which provided a powerful booster to lift the space programme off the ground. Come what may, the Americans decided they had to catch up, a project that at first involved much unintentional comedy. 'It seems to me that a potato would be a simple thing to put into space,' said one scientist, 'because the potato has a very simple rhythm, it doesn't have a complicated life-pattern.' With minds like that on the job, it was only a matter of time.

I'd better confess now that I would have enjoyed this programme even if it had been presented by James Burke, which I hope gives some indication of the degree to which the subject matter blinds me to all considerations of taste. As one who was woken in the early hours to thrill to the sight of a large fuzzy grey blob moving around a screenful of dark grey murk, I don't need persuading of the romance of space travel - the way it drew superlatives and grandiose, epochal statements from the most cautious and cynical observers.

I did need reminding, though, and Jenny Abbott's opening programme did it marvellously, mixing hindsight and its dumb friend, nostalgia, in just the right proportions. There was much that was absurd, corrupt and unworthy about the space programme, but in the end it just doesn't weigh much against the astonishing beauty of the first earthrise ever seen, as Apollo 8 returned from the dark side of the moon. How could we have forgotten so quickly what that felt like?

Monday night's Panorama came from the dark side of the earth, and provided some evidence for those who think we have much unfinished business on this planet before we worry about going anywhere else. Fergal Keane's report on Rwanda didn't add much to what we already know about that sorry country, but it importantly added what reporters too dismissively refer to as 'colour'. Literally, in many cases - from the collaged greens and reds of a fruitful land to the iridescent putrefaction of a child's hand, mangled in an attempt to ward off machete blows.

There were subtler shades here than are available in the monochrome world of hard-news reporting. It felt more lived-in than recent bulletins, confronted you more vividly with the cruel mystery of the thing - the terror of refugees moving through a lightless night; the self-satisfied contempt of a mayor implicated in a massacre; the numb recollection of ordinary killers, egged on by the militia to beat their neighbours to death. It wasn't all bleak - Keane had discovered a Hutu Schindler, a local official risking his life to save Tutsi refugees, negotiating his way by bribery and bureaucracy through the deadly checkpoints. But he wasn't much of a straw to clutch at, in the face of young men and women so easily converted into eager murderers. They live here too, of course, these blank untouchables - in Belfast streets and East End estates. We're just lucky that the ice is thicker.