Thursday, July 16, 2009

One small step to nowhere

Forty years ago today, Apollo 11 blasted off on its historic mission to land a man on the moon. On July 20 the world watched, hearts in mouths, as the lunar module piloted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sped towards the surface of the Moon with time and fuel running out as the crew searched for a suitable landing spot. No-one who watched it on TV can forget the moment when Armstrong took those hesitant steps down the ladder to become the first man to set foot on another world, uttering the immortal words "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." People looked up at the moon in awe, imagining the two men and their tiny craft who had just landed there.

As a sixteen year old geek - if the term had been invented then - with a great interest in astronomy, electronics and radio, and a keen science-fiction reader, the Apollo 11 landing was a seminal moment. Months earlier I had written to NASA and they had sent me a picture of the earth rising above the lunar landscape taken by Apollo 8. It was pinned up beside my bed on the wall. Now we were actually there. Next stop, Mars. Then where?

In 1969 my whole life was ahead of me, and it appeared to be a future in which there was no limit to what man could do. It seemed that science and technology could solve any problem, and all my science fiction dreams would come true. I eventually began a career in computing, which in those days was a bit like science - you wore a white coat and worked in air conditioned rooms using the latest high-tech equipment.

How things have changed! How those hopes were dashed! Today's technology makes that of the '60s seem primitive by comparison, but there is no glamour to science and technology any more. In 40 years the computer has gone from a tool affordable only by universities, the military and big corporations and operated by elite "boffins", to something an eight year old uses to play games or download the latest hit songs and which Mum uses to keep in touch with Granny. The optimism that led America to believe it could, within a decade, land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, was replaced by a realism that space exploration was a luxury costing money that could be better spent elsewhere. The word "geek" was invented, and became a somewhat derogatory term. Science became the bringer of bad news about things like global warming and swine flu.

Are things better now than they were at the end of the 1960s? I don't think so. Sure, I'm a lot better off than my parents were and have luxuries they could never have imagined. But there was an innocence and optimism about life then that has gone now. Those were the days of the Cold War, but that wasn't something that impinged on our consciousness much. I'd rather have the old enemy back, the USSR, than the threat of terrorism that we face today. I'd rather have what we had then and still have hopes for the future, than have what I have now and worry about how long it will last.

Neil Armstrong's small step ultimately led nowhere. A nation lost confidence in itself, the world became more inward looking, more concerned with everyday, mundane matters. The future became less bright. People no longer look up at the moon in awe and dream about where we will go next.

I miss the innocence and the optimism. If only I could turn back the clock forty years and relive those moments anew.
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