Peter Hoskin

The moon landing: 40 years on

The moon landing: 40 years on
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As it's forty years since man first landed on the moon, I've trawled through the Speccie archives to see what we wrote about the event at the time.  There's one feature article in the issue dated 26 July, 1969, which I've reprinted below.  Oddly, the landing isn't mentioned on the magazine's cover - and nor is it the topic of that week's leader - but old hands around the office assure me that could have been a result of arcane printing practices, which saw the cover go to print days before the rest of the magazine.  Still, the article the magazine did contain is a neat tribute to human ingenuity and daring.  Here it is:   

Success story

John Graham


The Americans are simply an amazing people. If the qualities that the British pride themselves on show best under strain, then the qualities of Americans are most clear under the light of success. The last ten days in this country have been a strange time. But many of the personal and collective qualities that have made America what it is have been uncloaked by the simple but brilliant success of the Apollo 11 flight. And they make it easy o forget for a time the bad things and concentrate on the good.

There is first the technological power of this country, that so astonished Khrushchev on his visit , and that has magnified almost beyond recognition even in the intervening few years. The Americans have just completed an enterprise of greater technological complexity than anything tried before. They conducted the entire operation in the fullest publicity they could manage, and they brought it off with scarcely a hitch. There is a tendency to gloss over the sheer mechanics of a flight to the moon - the mathematics, the chemistry, the physics, and so on - as old hat. But for those who like myself can hardly build a card-house of more than two or three stories without developing insuperable mechanical problems, it is worth continually reminding ourselves that the machinery that put two Americans on the moon had literally millions of moving parts.

That this machinery worked so well is not only a tribute to the ingenuity of the men who built it, but a comforting proof that man can remain in charge of the machines he builds. The cybernetics of Apollo 11, the logistic equations, the critical path analyses… all these were about as far from the quadratic equations of our youth as the rockets Wernher von Braun made in his youth were from Saturn 5. But the end result of this vast system was to enable two men to go and dance on the moon.

Controlling the technical creations of the cleverest nation of scientists were two of the most admirable human qualities: confidence and modesty. It may sound odd to talk of Americans and modesty in the same sentence, but really there has been very little boasting this week. There has been a lot of congratulation, naturally, but almost no gloating. There was even, before the flight, a considerable debate about whether the Stars and Stripes should be planted on the moon; a lot of people thought nothing so narrow should mark man’s first extraterrestrial visit, and that a United Nations flag would be more appropriate. That such a debate should even be started is to me astonishing: can anyone doubt that if the first men to go to the moon had come from another country, say England or France or Ghana, they would have taken their country’s flag? One dinner-party guest said to me on Saturday: ‘You know, if you had been the ones to get there first, your astronaut would have planted the Union Jack and said: “I name this moon Elizabeth.” ’

The confidence was equally striking. Everyone knew that the mission was dangerous. No one had ever done it before, and even if all foreseeable dangers were anticipated, there was always the a priori argument that since the moon is an alien world man’s powers of perception and detection, however great, just might not be of the type to detect the dangers. And yet, in the weeks that led up to the launch, and the days of the flight, scarcely anyone betrayed that he believed all would not go well. The whole business was shrugged off with that coolness, that matter-of-factness, which Americans claim is the British characteristic they most admire.

It was in the spirit of the great adventurers… the ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’ ploy. This is to me the first and strongest impression of Americans, that they are the adventurers of the world. They started that way, they have continued that way. They pride themselves on it, and it doesn’t look as if anything will stop them. Sometimes their adventures end in tragic futility, as in Vietnam and Cuba; sometimes they end in glory. But their reach will always exceed their grasp, and now that they have grasped the moon, they will reach for something else. This, the underlying romance of humanity, is in permanent conflict with the practical side of their nature.

For they are a supremely practical people. They want to know whether something can be done and what it will cost, and if possible what use it will be. Vague answers to these questions will not stop them trying a particular enterprise, but will provoke a wall of criticism. The space programme, and especially the moon programme has been clear enough in the last few years, when there were, plain for the world to see, colossal problems in the United States itself, which could have used the $25,000 million that moon programme has cost. To this criticism, the best answer has been given, a long time ago, by Benjamin Franklin, who was at the time ambassador to Paris. One of the earliest balloon experiments was in process, when he was asked: ‘What is the use of a balloon?’ He replied: ‘And what use, sir, is a new-born babe?’

The use is because it is there; the reason for doing so is because it is there. Mankind has come a long way since a poor Greek scientist was clapped in irons for daring to suggest that the sun might be as big as the Peloponnese.

Now, the moon is as big as Apollo. We have gone on doing things and going places simply because they were there. And if you are at a loss for words to describe what has happened, you are in the company of the poet:

‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.’

In space at least, the Americans are the Greeks of today. They have the two great characteristics of the Athenians, acquisitiveness and inquisitiveness. They love to find practical uses for their knowledge, but they also love knowledge for its own sake. Like Ulysses, they journey and they fight.

And like Ulysses, they are not good at sitting still:

‘I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d not to shine in use.’

It would be a shame if the domestic pressure in America now forced a decline the exploration of space. There is a spirit, ‘yearning in desire to follow knowledge, like a sinking star, beyond, the utmost bound of human thought.’ This spirit must be served, or mankind will be the less.

While we're at it, I'd also recommend you read Mary's piece on space travel in this week's issue of the mag.