2018 started on a sad note for space enthusiasts with the passing of John Young.
Less than a week into the new year, news started to filter through that the veteran astronaut had left us for good – aviation records, 2 Gemini flights, 2 Apollo flights to the Moon, the ninth man to walk on the moon and commander of the first orbital shuttle flight, Young had spanned the initial eras of America’s spaceflight adventures. His achievements back on Earth were no less impressive. He served NASA faithfully for 42 years, staying with the agency whilst many of his Apollo contemporaries chose to move on and serving as Chief of the Astronaut Office for over a decade.
Young was a dogged campaigner for safety, openly criticising NASA in the wake of the Challenger disaster, a move that he and many others believed led to his reassignment within the agency. Undeterred, Young worked on until his retirement in 2004 and continued to attend meetings at NASA well after this, always ready to ask a difficult question or voice a well informed opinion earned through hard experience. Some have called him ‘The Astronaut’s Astronaut’ – he will surely be remembered as an American hero for dedicating his life’s service in pursuit of distant horizons, never looking for personal acclaim but always seeking to add to our knowledge.
One of the saddest aspects of Young’s passing was that it tipped the balance of moonwalkers irrevocably to the side of those that have left us, versus those who remain. Of the twelve men who walked on the Moon only Aldrin, Bean, Scott, Duke and Schmitt remain. The total number of Apollo era astronauts continues to dwindle as time takes its inevitable toll. The latter months of 2017 saw us lose P.J. Weitz, Dick Gordon and Bruce McCandless. As unpleasant as the thought is, it may well be that none of the moonwalkers will survive to see new human footprints made in the lunar dust.
As attention turns again to new moon landings, this time spurred on by the prospect of commercial interests and international cooperation, we can finally say with some confidence that we will revisit the stage where those heroes of Apollo played out their epic adventures nearly half a century ago. The names of these pioneers will surely be memorialised in the infrastructure developed during this new age of lunar exploration, and rightly so, but I feel that there’s something more we can be doing back here on terra firma to celebrate those space-race veterans who remain with us and memorialise those who have passed.
The golden age of Apollo has become a subject for nostalgia,
woven from the memories of those who served their part in the drama or simply watched on awestruck. The epic story of what the United States achieved in response to Kennedy’s 1961 challenge retains a power to ignite the imagination, even in those born decades after the last crew splashed down in the Pacific. History books will record Apollo as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century, J.G. Ballard described it as “the last great act undertaken by the United States out of a sense of optimism” commenting on Andrew Chaikin’s seminal book A Man On The Moon, but a legacy like Apollo’s won’t perpetuate itself. Half a century is plenty of time for the public to forget, for memories to fade and for new generations to grow without knowledge of what was achieved. Whilst those of us to whom space is a hugely important part of our lives may endlessly discuss the minutiae of our favourite missions, a far larger proportion of the population know little of the story.
We may laugh at the ignorance of a TV presenter who confuses a trip to the ISS with walking on the moon, snort derisively as a tabloid follows this up by stating a non-existent astronaut last walked on the moon in the eighties or roll our eyes as another YouTube conspiracist spreads their fact-free theories about fake footage, but we must also recognise that these are the inevitable results of Apollo becoming an increasingly distant event.
With all the technology now at our disposal, many find it hard to fathom how humans could have reached the moon with what we now regard as woefully primitive tools. In our increasingly risk-averse society, the chances taken during the space race may seem irresponsible – if we choose not to take such risks now, how could we have possibly taken them then? Such views may occasionally represent wilful ignorance, but I believe in the majority of cases they merely represent a vacuum of knowledge, a vacuum that can all too easily filled by erroneous assumptions fuelled by an online avalanche of opinion.
OK, I’m 800 words in here and you’ve been patient with me so far but….what’s my point here?
Well, my point is that a combination of sadness for the loss of heroes and the upcoming 50th anniversaries of the Apollo flights could be an occasion to mourn missed opportunities or bemoan the lack of ambition shown since Apollo 17 blasted away from the moon in 1972. That’s probably the easy thing to do, but there’s an equal and opposite reaction to these events. Why don’t we use this as an opportunity to raise the profile of Apollo, not as an exercise in nostalgia but rather as an exemplar of how far we can reach when we really try?
Yes, I know that Apollo and indeed the wider space race of the 1960s was essentially a surrogate war for the hearts and minds of a world presented with clashing ideologies, I know that we’ll likely never again witness the unique blend of circumstance and opportunity that led to Tranquility Base and beyond and I’m not proposing that we endlessly try to recreate this. What I am proposing is that we celebrate the achievements and share them with a whole new generation as an inspiration. We now live in a society where science literacy is declining and, worse still, the scientific method itself is under suspicion for turning up those annoying nuggets of empirical data that can be so troubling to our way of life. This mustn’t be our long term trajectory.
When Marie Wilson famously stated “You can’t be what you can’t see” she was referring to the need for greater female representation in the fundamental institutions of society to effect a wider change in attitudes towards gender. If role models are visible, then new generations will aspire to follow in their footsteps rather than be constrained by the attitudes faced by their forebears. I believe a reexamination and celebration of Apollo could perform a similar role in encouraging a new generation to follow a path into STEM subjects. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Apollo 15 CMP Al Worden last year and was hugely impressed by the drive and dedication he shows in meeting and talking to school groups, not to simply lecture them on past achievements but to use his experiences to spur their imaginations and light a spark of curiosity and discovery that can help guide them in new directions. There’s nothing quite like meeting someone who’s been to the moon and, importantly, returned safely laden with new knowledge to help the mind skip beyond everyday concerns and look towards something bigger.
I stated earlier that I feel the circumstances are right for a return to the moon, but that this won’t be a case of dusting off old technology – we will need new techniques, new engineering and new thinking to do the job right. If Apollo was the wagon-train blazing a new trail into previously unexplored lands, our next outward journeys must build the railroads to make economical access to these lands a reality. It’s become an overused cliche for school groups to be told ‘the first person to walk on Mars may be in the room’. That might be true, but then the person who designs the lander, writes the code to allow a safe landing or engineers the suit to keep them alive may also be in the room and they need to understand the possibilities open to them. They can’t be what they can’t see.
Fine words and sentiments maybe, but I’m no politician.
What can I do about this? Well, I can see the 21st July 2019 approaching fast and I can identify this as an opportunity. I can ask myself “How can I help make this significant anniversary mean something to society as a whole rather than just my ‘bubble’ of space enthusiast friends?” I can find talented communicators who already have the public ear and ask them how they plan to mark the anniversary. I can campaign to the media, not just pestering them to mark the event but patiently explaining why this is a worthwhile thing to do and the dividends it could pay in the future. I can also write articles, hopefully finding likeminded people who share my convictions and may have far better ideas. I can encourage them to join me in the endeavour. I can encourage YOU to join me in the endeavour.
I and people like me can launch our own space mission.
We don’t need a Saturn V, consumables won’t be too much of a problem and fortunately we won’t be plagued by endless questions about toilet arrangements. The Command Module for this mission can be as big as we want and hopefully it will need to be because the crew will hopefully be larger than any that have gone before. Our challenge won’t be escaping a gravity well, instead we will have to break the inertia of indifference that could easily keep us rooted to our figurative launch pad.
We can pay fitting tribute to those, like John Young or Dick Gordon and so many others who have passed away but will never really die as long as their exploits are remembered. What better legacy could there be than inspiring others to follow their lead and continue the journey they began back in the 60s? We could make a difference in their names. Maybe not a big difference, but a difference all the same.