In a world almost jaded by innovation, it is difficult to convey the awe, the shuddering excitement, the sense of possibility — and the victory for God-on-our-side capitalism, too —provoked by the first moon landing, 50 years ago today. It was, even on flickering, black-and-white televisions, simply jaw-dropping.
You could, as whole neighbourhoods circled televisions wondering if this miracle was to happen, hear a pin drop a street away. Even though the project was driven by the first Irish-American president, John F Kennedy, it is more than difficult to convey the particular, nuanced impact that great Rubicon-crossing event had in Ireland.
It may seem a tad self-important to see this great step through a green prism, even if for only a moment, but the chasm between Neil Armstrong’s world and the world of his 1969 Irish contemporaries was so great that the moon landing’s cultural impact was, in Ireland at least, probablyits most significant consequence.
The landing might have opened endless galaxies to the rest of the world, but it opened the transformative power of enlightened science to the people of Ireland in an unprecedented way. Thankfully, the opportunity, the inspiring example, was not missed.
Less than a year earlier, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae was published and the old Ireland, where piety trumped spirituality, reasserted an authority that was to slip away far faster than could have been imagined. While the world of science accepted the challenge of faraway horizons, Rome renewed its medievalism.
It may be coincidental, but it is illustrative, too, that just as America sent the first man to the moon, Ireland sent its first woman to the Eurovision Song Contest, the first person from Northern Ireland, too. (Muriel Day sang ‘The Wages of Love’ in Franco’s Madrid.)
Today’s great anniversary offers an opportunity for another set of comparisons. The space race was a proxy war between good — America, of course — and evil, the Red Soviet Union, naturally. The world is as divided today, though not along the same lines.
Tragically, today’s America seems more aligned to the forces that it so vigorously challenged, and surpassed, in 1969. Under its president, Donald Trump, whose imagination may not reach beyond 2020, much lessas far as the moon, the country that gave the world NeilArmstrong and Buzz Aldrin is more comfortable with turn-back-the-clock, medieval values and nativist autocrats.
Two years ago, one of the eminent scientists of our time, the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, excoriated America’s president.
“Unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious and wrong decision [pulling America out of the Paris climate accord] on climate this world has seen, I am arguing for the future of humanity and a long-term strategy to achieve this,” said Hawking. He warned that we must, within 100 years, colonise new, life-sustaining planets.
In that light, and as we seem unable to mend our destructive ways, we may have to rewrite JFK’s inspiring moon speech so slightly.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he said. Now, if you accept Hawking’s warning, we must see the 1969 landing as a first step in humanity’s racefor survival and replace JFK’s “hard” with urgent.