Yesterday I went out to explore Texas. Well Texas was too big, so I thought I would explore Houston, or maybe the bit down by the Gulf Coast. Then I downsized a lil more and headed for the Moon. A few hours later I was touching it.
Well I was touching a small fragment of it in the NASA Space centre. This was at the end of a three hour visit of a modern day museum of exploration and discovery, containing bits and pieces of rockets, landing modules, shuttles and space stations. A group of us did a tour of the Johnson Space Centre on a little train, with a guide who organised us with military precision. Here hundreds of men and women are employed reaching for their next outpost. We met the last guy to stand on the moon. We saw a complete 110m Saturn Five rocket – an enormous feat of 1960s engineering made and launched before the advent of the personal computers or mobile phone. In Mission Control, I sent a text to my family – “This is Houston . . . mission control, come in please”. I sat where the Apollo flights were controlled, with their twin objectives of “mission success” and “crew safety”. Not all achieved their objectives. Then I saw a sign saying all mobile phones must be in the off position. I just hope I didn’t sabotage anything important.
Back in 1961, John F Kennedy famously committed the American nation to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before this decade is out. ” Nine years later, the mission was completed. At 20:17 on July 20 with about 25 seconds of fuel left, the Eagle landed on the lunar surface, and a few minutes later, Neil Armstrong was making his famous giant leap for mankind. There was a man on the moon. We all watched in it black and white, which was fine. There is no colour on the moon. Not even a cheese colour.
So what was it that drove the human race to complete this mission of all missions? For me, it is unmistakeably the greatest engineering feat ever. There was endless information on the amazing how, but precious little on the equally amazing why. We learned how the twin IBM 360 mainframes used to control everything had a third of the memory of your mobile phone. (I cut my own teeth on IBM 370s 14 years later, which were not much more powerful). We saw the intricate design of the living space the astronauts survived and worked in. As a closet claustrophobic, it was unimaginable to me how three guys could sit in a tiny capsule on top of a rocket the height of St Paul’s Cathedral filled with 3000 tonnes of rocket fuel, waiting for the lighting of the blue touch paper. The human feat was equal to the engineering feat.
And we saw the human cost – a memorial garden to the dozens of astronauts lost in this great space race. So why do it? What possessed America to spend so many dollars and human capital on space exploration, at a time when the cold war was, as it were, hotting up? Within a year of Kennedy’s speech, Soviet missiles were stationed on Cuba, and the world was on the brink of Mutually Assured Destruction. Getting a man on the moon must have seemed an irrelevance.
Part of the answer of course lies in the Cold War. This was a space race against the old enemy. Reds under the beds was one thing, reds in space was going to be more scary than little green men. America needed to get to the moon first, not just for national pride (which was and is, as we know, considerable) but also to show those pesky Russians, that American ruled the moon as well as the earth. The American flag had to claim the skies. Even if there was no wind to make it fly.
More fundamental though, are the twin the basic human needs to explore and to achieve. From birth, we are driven to find out about the world beyond our reach. To shake the rattle, to reach up to kitchen surfaces, to explore the attic, to dismantle a torch. To try new music, new foods, new drugs. To travel and explore new countries. Even to visit the Houston Space Centre. And then to achieve something, to set new challenges to motivate and stimulate ourselves.
These are universal human needs which drive us onwards. They drove the first Europeans to discover and then subdue native America, despite the enormous cost in human lives and misery. A drive of a group, which tolerates the death of the few in order to achieve the objectives and desires of the many. It is logical captain, said Spock as he died, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
For mankind, space was and is the final frontier. So we continue to strive to boldly go where no man has gone before. And as individuals, we seek, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our own restlessness, to explore our own personal world, test our own frontiers and achieve new things. One wonders why we cannot just be content to enjoy what we have. But we can’t, despite the cost, despite the misery it can often cause, we seem destined to explore. Houston, we have a problem.