THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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The only state agency I ever loved

As a young boy I was a fan of NASA. I was born the year Sputnik was launched — the dawn of the Space Age — but, impressive though the Soviet space programme was, I — as a fan of Rawhide and DC Comics — was rooting for the Americans.

The Apollo Program was impossibly glamorous to a young boy in rural North Wales. I still have my scrapbooks of press clippings about the astronauts. The night (UK time) the Eagle landed 50 years ago I begged my parents to let me stay up and watch it on TV. They were not inclined to agree until I told them that nothing so great was likely to happen in my life and I just had to watch. I was 12 and — practical people that they are — they thought I was nuts but they agreed. They went to bed and left me to my nonsense. 

I don’t remember fearing for Armstrong, Aldrin and the Commander of Apollo 11, Collins. They must have been terrified but my confidence was total. As the flickering images told the epic tale, I felt all humanity was beginning something of vast and imponderable importance. I went out into the garden and looked at the Moon, thinking of those two guys on its surface and imagined leaving Earth’s confines myself at some point. I would have been disappointed to think a political blessing — the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War — would mean 50 years later we would have done almost nothing to build on my heroes’ achievements. 

I can’t justify a vainglorious, largely pointless project funded by massive extortion  of innocent taxpayers. My practical parents were right about the costs. I know private capital would have funded the useful space technologies like communication satellites that have actually improved human life in practical ways. I later worked for a law firm that wrote contracts for such stuff to be funded. My head knows that it was mostly childish dick-waving by the USA and USSR but my heart still soars at the thought of such an adventure. 

If ever anyone had some excuse for joining a state agency funded by force, it’s the men and women of NASA. My favourite photograph was published in the Sunday Times Magazine, showing the immense power of the greatest machine ever built, the Saturn V, as it launched Collins’ craft. Looking at it, I felt proud to be human. Years later I visited Cape Canaveral and saw one of the two remaining Saturn Vs on display. I felt the same sense of awed (and undeserved) pride that 12 year old Welsh kid did all those years ago. I felt the same love for the daring, courageous, sweetly arrogant nation that built it and provided the heroes to ride it out of Earth’s gravity.

I stood on the walkway the Apollo 11 crew used to embark on that mission and got goosebumps. I was so excited I forgot the time difference and called my Dad. He was as baffled by my enthusiasm as ever I think — but we had a moment. I think he remembered the boy I once was.

My paternal grandfather died years after Apollo 11 but he mentioned it in our last conversation. We both knew he was dying and that we were saying our goodbyes. He said to me 

I remember seeing the first car in our county drive through our village. I thought that was something but then I lived to see the first planes and then jets and to fly on Concorde. I even lived to see the Yanks put men on the Moon. I saw so much progress in my life, from horses to space rockets. I can’t imagine what you’ll live to see

Annoying though it is as a libertarian I have to admit a state achieved the greatest technological feat of my lifetime. I guess I must view it in the same way as the Roman Conquest, the great Khan putting his DNA into 60% of modern Asians or the founding of the USA — wrong, very wrong, but magnificent. And in all three cases humanity can’t now be imagined without the consequences. 


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I can't argue with your sentiments, SD, but it seems to me that the least useful result of all that effort expended in the Apollo programme was getting a couple of blokes on the Moon. The real benefit of Apollo to mankind was in the explosion of new technologies fundamental to making it all happen, and in the enormous expansion of human knowledge.


Harsh but there’s a grain of truth in that. Selfishly, it’s a highlight of my life I would have hated to lose however. Kennedy was a bad man in many ways. If ever I think feminists overstate historic male mistreatment of women, for example, I think of him and his brother Ted to remind myself just how bad men could be during my lifetime. But I owe him for Apollo.


I have been meaning to read that for years. Thanks for reminding me. I fear my book pile is already more years of reading than an actuary would give me but I will be an optimist and add it anyway!


I think I would have liked your mum! Thanks for your reminiscences and comments. You make a very interesting point about the Apollo programme having warped perceptions of the practicality of space exploration. I fear you may well be right.

Schrodinger's Dog


If you've not already read it, I thoroughly recommend Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff. It's about the astronauts on Project Mercury and does a superb job of capturing the zeitgeist that led to the Space Race.

Schrodinger's Dog


Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane.

My recollections of the first Moon walk are slightly different, though. My late mother stayed up all night to watch it all. I remember her shaking me awake and thinking she was getting me - and my brother and sister - up for school. But no, it was 3:30am and the astronauts were about to make their Moon walk.

I agree with your opinions, particularly your comments to CherryPie. Project Apollo was a political undertaking from the outset. In May 1961 JFK committed America to putting a man on the Moon "... before this decade is out." Seeing how the only American who had been into space at that time was Alan Shepherd, who had completed a fifteen minute sub-orbital flight earlier the same month, Kennedy's announcement was an act of hubris bordering on insanity.

As a space exploration enthusiast, over the years I have come to view Project Apollo as a huge mistake. It was the state at its very best - and also, paradoxically, it's very worst. To their eternal credit, the scientists and engineers at NASA met Kennedy's deadline. But they achieved it at such astronomical cost as to convince most people that manned space travel was simply unaffordable. They also achieved it with a dead-end technology: routine travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond is not going to be accomplished with multi-stage, expendable chemical rockets.

Without Apollo there's no way men would have been walking on the Moon in 1969. But without it, and the concomitant Space Race, more practical space technologies would have been developed. Who knows? We might have had people going to the Moon in 2019.


You make an excellent point and I stand corrected. Thank you. 

Baron Jackfield

Annoying though it is as a libertarian I have to admit a state achieved the greatest technological feat of my lifetime

"a state" didn't "achieve" it... It merely, for political purposes, facilitated it. The achievement was that of the thousands of talented and dedicated individuals who shared a common dream.


A J P Taylor described it as the biggest non event in history...and so it was; a PR stunt initiated by a PR President, who had previously brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.


Mankind would have advanced into space without Kennedy bilking the US taxpayers to flaunt his political manhood. State involvement (as always) cost lives private capital would never have risked and involved waste (of money and labour) investors would never have tolerated. At one stage Apollo was costing 2.5% of US GDP. That stage lasted for 10 years! Yet without it we would still have had satellite navigation and communications and all the other practical benefits.

The state always screws it up, but that doesn’t detract from the achievements of the scientists, technicians and astronauts who signed up to a flawed programme in good faith. The project that won the Cold War was not Apollo but one that never got off the drawing board — Reagan’s “Star Wars”, the Strategic Defense Initiative. At best Apollo contributed to that win by convincing the Soviets that America could pull the SDI off — and were crazy enough to try.


Sometimes we have to separate the amazing technological advances man has made from a political context.

It is liberating and upsetting in equal measures.

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