Lunar RoverThis isn’t a boast born of vanity, but the truth: Not long after I’d turned forty, I was purchasing a packet of coffin-nails from my local supermarket and the wet-behind-the-ears youth serving at the cigarette counter asked me for some ID. I inquired if he was taking the piss and then I did what old biddies tend to do without much in the way of prompting – I told him my age. To emphasise this, I proclaimed I was old enough to remember the Moon Landings. As a tool for dividing generations, possessing a memory of astronauts steering a buggy across the lunar surface is almost up there with recalling pre-decimal currency. Incidentally, I missed memories of the latter by a year or so, being merely three when we abolished £sd.

Unfortunately, I was only eighteen months old in July 1969, so don’t remember that inaugural giant leap for mankind; but for anyone who missed having a memory of it by decades rather than months, you might not realise NASA kept returning to the moon for the next three-and-a-half years. It often seems the nostalgia industry is so busy focusing on Neil Armstrong’s one small step that all the other steps that followed are almost written out of history.

Fortunately for me, my memories of those later landings remain quite vivid. We, like most working-class British households in the early 70s, still only had a black & white TV set, so to my infant eyes the lunar surface looked like sand on a beach at night (and let’s not encourage those who’ll have us believe that’s precisely what it was).

I remember the intense (albeit groovy) James Burke presenting the broadcasts and I remember watching that Lunar Rover speeding along, aware that a toy model of it was available in the shops – though I never received one in my Xmas stocking, alas. I remember sometimes looking out of my bedroom window at night and straining my eyes at the full moon, desperately trying to see the NASA personnel up there.

By 1972, the whole Apollo programme was such a part of the cultural landscape that it perhaps seemed less fantastic to me than anyone older; I took it for granted and assumed people would one day live up there. I wasn’t to know the giant leap was already in its final phase.

002The last lunar module touched down on the moon on 11 December 1972. It was a Monday, and live BBC TV coverage of the historic event began at 7.35pm – airing after that evening’s ‘Z Cars’; the Radio Times announced touchdown was expected at 7.54pm GMT, though the programme would morph into ‘Panorama’ at 8.00, with the subject under discussion being the end of NASA’s greatest project. The following day, live coverage resumed at 12 noon, 10.55pm and 12.05am. By Friday afternoon, it was all over, with the final edition of a live broadcast that had been a staple of TV schedules since 1969; titled ‘Farewell Moon’, it looked back at the week’s highlights. When ‘Cradle of England’, an archetypal regional programme promoted to the network graveyard slot of the time, was transmitted at 2.15, a broadcasting era was over.

Lest we forget, various Space Shuttle launches were broadcast live throughout the 80s – with the two that stick in the memory being the first in 1981 and the Challenger disaster of 1986; but their crews never set foot on the moon or anywhere else beyond a space station. I recall the unmanned Viking module landing on the Martian surface in 1976, but the question David Bowie had posed in the charts three years earlier wasn’t answered in the affirmative. We’ve had to make do with unmanned craft on Mars ever since, and it’s not the same as seeing human beings up there.

Yesterday, it almost felt like the old days when the launch of the rocket carrying the first tax-payer-funded British astronaut Tim Peake all the way to the International Space Station was covered live on BBC2. No James Burke or Patrick Moore in 2015, of course; we had a former member of a 90s dance act and an Irish comedian fronting the coverage to give it a hip post-modern feel, with their special guest being US astronaut Chris Hadfield, the man who sang ‘Space Oddity’ on the ISS and became that most dreaded of modern phenomena, an ‘internet sensation’. Oh, well. Times change.

If a Brit wasn’t involved, chances are coverage of this latest passenger flight to the ISS would be restricted to an item midway through the evening news; but the presence of Tim Peake appears to be rekindling an interest in space travel in a country that abandoned its own home-grown space project when the Americans and Soviets became engaged in the race to the moon in the early 60s. We never did get Dan Dare after all, so we have to make do with Tim Peake, who will spend the next six months not tackling The Mekon, but partaking in scientific stuff that wouldn’t really make for engrossing viewing.

The arguments for and against space exploration usually centre on the astronomical cost of it, but international co-operation is the way forward today, which bodes well for its future. For someone like me, born into a world in which astronauts playing golf on the moon made ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Doctor Who’ less far-fetched as a consequence, that is good news. There’s almost an element of nostalgia in it now; those born too late to even remember the final Moon Landings look at the archive footage and wonder why, in an age of personal technology unimaginable forty-five years ago, we’re not on the moon or any of the planets in the twenty-first century. Those of us who were there in 1972 wonder likewise. The sense of disappointment when we reached 1999 and there was no lunar colony of the kind Gerry Anderson had predicted in 1975 was a bit of a bummer, to be frank.

Space exploration is worth it in the same way ocean exploration was worth it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Mind you, I suppose some who waved off Christopher Columbus when he set sail for the New World in 1492 probably grumbled about how the money spent building his ship could have been spent on schools or hospitals.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “OUTTA SPACE!

  1. Space travel and nostalgia for the 70’s and for the many futures, now past, that never came to be…

    I am told, by my mother, that I too watched the Apollo 11 moon landing, but as I was barely 3 months old at the time I have no memory of seeing it live! I do however have very clear memories of the joint Apollo-Soyuz docking mission of July 1975 and also of getting into trouble for my reenactment of this historic event, modelled using, among other things, toilet roll tubes! I blame John Craven’s Newsround, for putting the idea in my head, and Blue Peter, for the methodology, i.e. toilet rolls, “sticky back plastic” et al. No wonder I “Turned to the Dark Side” and started watching ‘Magpie’! Which brings us back to space travel and nostalgia for the 70’s and perhaps the first Star Wars film in over 30 years that has not, as yet, let me inexorably to the quote “I have a bad feeling about this!”

    P.s. Alternative Vader…


  2. Dara O Briain may have a degree in ‘Mathematics and Theoretical Physics’ but his is no Sir Patrick Moore. Hell, I have a degree in History, but that doesn’t give me the right to go on tv and make like I am the spiritual successor to A.J.P. Taylor! As for Prof. Brian Cox, well, he is no Carl Sagan! Let’s just say that I would love to make mincemeat out of the little bastard! I don’t necessarily mean that in an academic/intellectual way, rather in more of a sort of Dr. Hannibal Lecter kind of way, then feed him to pigs etc. Then things could only get better! 🙂

    Which brings us, of course, to James Burke… or does it? One of those great tv eccentrics of yesteryear along with the likes of Patrick Moore, Magnus Pyke and Prof. Heinz Wolff, none of whose likes will shall ever see again… or will we? Burke’s unique tv persona can be summed up quite simply, eccentric, groovy 70’s teacher, safari suited and constantly questioning the validity of the last statement he has just made… or can it? 🙂

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