This 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.
The 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