Joan Smith: The Moon once made the future seem so bright

The Moon landings expressed an optimism and thirst for knowledge, the hallmarks of secular culture

Share

How the passing of time changes perception: in 1969, no one could fail to be astounded by photographs of an American astronaut walking on the Moon. The future had arrived in front of our eyes, promising a new era in which anything seemed possible. The human race had conquered space and there seemed no limits to what might be achieved in the next decade or so.

Forty-three years later, pictures of the Moon landings are quaint and a little sad. In his unwieldy space suit, Neil Armstrong looks like a figure out of an old sci-fi movie, and the announcement of his death at the weekend feels like a coda to a book which has long been closed. Six Apollo missions landed a dozen men on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, but predictions of human beings living there, and space tourism becoming a reality, were way off the mark. The current rover mission to Mars has opened a new era in space exploration, but I doubt whether anyone would have predicted that it would take so long.

The tributes paid to Armstrong in the past couple of days have been heartfelt. The tone was set by President Obama, who described the astronaut as "among the greatest of American heroes". Obama's remarks caught the public mood, reflecting a craving for authentic heroism in an age when the word is used so widely that it's in danger of being devalued. Armstrong responded to his global fame with quiet modesty, never losing sight of why he had got involved in space exploration in the first place. He described himself as a "nerdy engineer" and insisted that he took "a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession".

These days, Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows ("I'm an astronaut, get me out of here"). But if Armstrong's determination to continue with normal life strikes us as charming, it also evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia. It's easy to look back from the standpoint of 2012 and see him as the representative of a more innocent world, untouched by so many of the developments we dislike about our own time.

In 1969, Richard Nixon was in his first year as President and the term "Watergate" had not entered the political vocabulary. The sheer excitement of watching grainy pictures beamed back from the Moon obscured any connection between the space race and the Cold War; Apollo 11 was simply a crowning achievement, marking a new chapter in human endeavour. Three months later, two million people took part in protests across the US against the Vietnam conflict, which the 1968 generation rejected as yet another old men's war.

The peaceful use of science, symbolised by the Moon landings, promised a glowing future in which humanity would rise above the conflicts which had disfigured the first half of the 20th century. In 1963, Harold Wilson had told the Labour Party conference that "we are redefining… our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution". Most people know the next line of Wilson's speech, which talked about "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution", although they may have forgotten that he followed it with a swipe at the trade unions. Wilson's image of a new country being created in the purging flames of a furnace was far from the reality of Britain's smoky industrial cities, but the belief that we were entering a period of cheap and abundant energy was widespread.

Back in 1952, the Daily Graphic had somewhat optimistically compared the arrival of nuclear power with "stepping out of the Ice Age into a world of permanent sunshine". The popular British TV programme, Tomorrow's World, had more grounding in reality, but was not immune to flights of fancy about robots relieving human beings of annoying household chores. Nixon was a scoundrel, but he wasn't George W Bush, and the success of the US in the space race marked a high point in its history. Under Reagan, space exploration was eclipsed by star wars, and we've become used once again to technology being used to find more sophisticated ways of killing human beings.

But that's not the only reason, I suspect, that the death of an astronaut has moved so many people. Armstrong was an aeronautical engineer who became, almost by accident, the first human being to step foot on another celestial body. He did so at a time when science was in the ascendant, debunking superstition and religious ideas about how the world came into being. The Apollo missions belong in a world which would have found it impossible to imagine 9/11 or the wars that followed it. The last century's conflicts, driven by ideology, have been replaced by wars in which religion once again plays a leading role. Who would have believed, in the 1960s, that individuals in search of a shortcut to paradise would one day immolate fellow human-beings in horrific suicide-bombings?

The Moon landings were expensive, grandiose even, but they expressed an optimism and thirst for knowledge which are the hallmarks of secular culture. We are sorely in need of a new enlightenment, based on a rational, scientific and endlessly curious view of the world. I would like to think Neil Armstrong will be one of its heroes.

www.politicalblonde.com

Twitter: @polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PHP / MySQL Developer (PHP, MySQL, AJAX, JQuery, MVC, HTML, XML

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: PHP / MySQL Developer (PHP, MySQL...

C# Back-End Developer (C#, .NET, ASP.NET, SQL, MVC-4, TDD, BDD)

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C# Back-End Developer (C#, .NET, ...

Web Developer (C#, HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, JQuery, XML) London

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Web Developer (C#, HTML5, CSS3, J...

C# Software Developer (C#, front-end, Java, JavaScript, VB)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C# Software Developer (C#, front-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried