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.