Vale, Neil Armstrong (or, What Happened to my Moon Base?)

Neil Alden Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon, has left us at the age of 82. I don’t remember the moonwalk although, as a baby, I was placed in front of the television to ‘watch’ as, on July 21st, we walked on another world. Growing up, of course, it quickly became apparent that we didn’t go to the Moon anymore, the last walk being when I was 4ish. Apollo 17, the last mission, was in December, 1972, and the planned Apollos (out to 20) were scrubbed. Yes, we got Skylab up into orbit and that was really exciting, as were the docking missions, but it wasn’t THE MOON.

(The Silence are standing behind the large Moon to the rear.)

But we were still in space! After all, it was only 8 years later that we all watched as the Space Shuttles started to go into the sky. Well, we were in space. It was obvious that other countries were doing things as well (for those who didn’t grow up with this, it’s fair to say that the USA and USSR didn’t get on for a while so information sharing was limited and often heavily propagandised by both parties) but that glorious shuttle, climbing up into the sky, had taken the baton and we even (finally) managed to get a space station in orbit that was bigger than a breadbox. But, by Moon shot comparisons, it wasn’t quite in the same league.

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that space travel has been the best use of our time and money but, goodness, has it been inspirational! We’ve developed some amazing things along the way and we’ve learned a great deal about ourselves – one of which, sadly, is that the future that I am living is not the future that I thought I would inhabit.

Growing up, I made a number of assumptions, based on the talk of the time and the books I read (a lot of which were science fiction) and, looking back on it now, these ideas were very inspirational. Growing up in the England of the early-mid 70s (a cold, lean and unpleasant place) having heroes from space was an important thing for me to have. The messages from the real-life stories of achievement (we went to the Moon! We’re getting rid of smallpox! We’re pushing back disease!) were, and still are, an important part of me. Even where we had dystopia presented to us, it was in order to learn. (The Earth has finite resources, for example, so perhaps we should be living within our means a little better – this is the message of so many works from the mid-late 20th century.)

An Eagle Transporter from the UK television series Space:1999. Note almost complete lack of aerodynamic features, including wing-based control surfaces, because (wait for it) there is no air on the Moon!

But, of course, we have no moon base. We have carried out an incredible and technologically staggering feat to gently drop the new Mars explorer on Mars – but there are no people there. I’m not sure how many times we’ll go back there and my fear is that, within 10 years, we abandon that too. But we aren’t just losing space. A number of our achievements in the face of disease and social equality, for example, are being undermined by deliberate dissemination of disinformation and the shameful exploitation of fear and ignorance.

Sadly, at least some of the people who read this will scoff at the idea that we even went to the Moon. “You rube,” they’re thinking, “Everyone knows it was a giant hoax and cover-up.” The same thing applies to vaccines, where the human failing regarding probability and modelling comes to the fore and the fearful and anecdotal are treasured over the science. Don’t even get me started on the climate change denial movement.

Is this our fault? As scientists did we presume too much in our certainty and, after so many mistakes, have we earned this distrust? Frankly, while scientists have been responsible for some shameful acts of wilful destruction or negligence, I don’t think we deserve to be viewed in such a harsh light. What I believe we’re seeing is the snake oil merchant at its finest – preying on the weak, undermining reality for their own ends, looking into the near term future of the wallet rather than the long term future of us all.

What scares me is that we may be losing our knowledge. That the simplest of ideas in science, that you collect and observe evidence in order to allow you to confirm or contradict your hypotheses, is being overrun by a mad dash towards a certainty based on wilful ignorance where you only see the evidence that agrees with your hypothesis, after the fact, and truth be damned. Should we be spending the money required to go back to the Moon? Perhaps not as it is a lot of money and, goodness knows, we have things to spend it on. But if our reason for not going back to the Moon is that we lack the drive, the imagination, the tenacity or the vision to achieve it – then we are in serious trouble.

People sometimes ask me how many students I need to have in my classroom in order to deliver a lecture. I like to have 80-95%, of course, but my answer is always the same: one. I will not consider it a waste of my time if I spend an hour with a student discussing the ideas and sharing knowledge with them. I want my students to be imaginative, driven, to be able to hang on like a terrier as they search for the truth and to understand that the search for knowledge is important – so I have to try to live that. I have to live it all the time because, all too often, there are too many examples of people ignoring the truth for a comfortable lie, for being famous for being famous, for being famous for being thoughtlessly reactive (shock jock, anyone), for changing their minds for political expediency, for outright lying, and for only valuing quantities and dollars rather than people and knowledge.

What gets me out of bed in the morning is my own set of heroes: my wife, my friends, those in my family who have overcome adversity, the real educators who do their job because they have to and because of their deep and enduring relationship with knowledge, the stars in my firmament. I looked to my own heroes growing up and those heroes wouldn’t have let the world resemble “Silent Running”, “Soylent Green” or “The Omega Man” – they, like me, wanted our children to grow up in a better world. Those films of the 60s and 70s were the product of SF writers looking forward and saying “We don’t want this.” In the absence of vision, in the attack upon science and in the minimisation of majestic and inspirational events, we get ever closer to these stinking, diseased, dying worlds that should only ever exist in our nightmares.

The green in this still from Silent Running is, in theory, almost all of what is left of Earth’s greenery. Not very large, is it?

I grew up thinking that “Silent Running”, a movie where companies ordered the destruction the last of Earth’s biomass because it was too expensive to keep, was hyperbole – at most a cautionary tale. Now, every day, I get out of bed to try and educate a new generation of scientists so that we don’t accidentally or deliberately end up going over exactly that precipice. Thought is the greatest tool that we have and, like any tool, it can work for us and against us. Guiding thought along constructive paths is challenging and it always helps to have a large and visible goal to aim for: navigators need stars or ships get lost.

We need champions. We need champions so large that even our other champions look to them – we need ideas so beautiful and so huge and so captivating that the vast majority of people, when exposed to them, roll up their sleeves and say “I can help.” We need people for your children to aspire to be, because of what they did, not who they are. However, while we have many champions, the giant blazing comets that I had growing up are all dying or dead and it makes me very sad. Yes, there is incredible achievement going on and there are many, many great stories but what does the future look like to someone growing up now?

My future was full of moon bases, flying cars, leisure time, robots, everyone well fed, no war, gender and race equality – what’s our scorecard looking like?

Soon there will be no-one left who walked on the moon. After 2099, there will probably be no-one alive when we did walk on the moon. What happens to the accounts of the Moon then? How long before it becomes a myth? How long before the real footage gets mixed up with Hollywood movies – or the MTV Logo becomes the 22nd century’s view of what happened on the Moon?

Of course, there is no real need to go back to the Moon. There are many other things that we can usefully do with that money and, ethically, we probably should. In terms of inspiration, it’s hard to beat, but that just makes it a challenge to find a problem that is equally big and put it together in a way that we can all see the rightness of it.

If you’ve read this far, thank you, but I have an additional favour to ask of you. This week, if possible, I’d like you to find an extra something, somewhere, that puts an extra champion into your life or into the life of someone else. It doesn’t have to be a person, it just has to be a star to set a course by. Something to look up to in high seas to know why you’re going where you’re going and that the risk is worth it. Have you told one of your living champions how much they mean to you? Have you made the time to share your (I know, precious) time and knowledge with someone else? Can you pin a picture of Hypatia to your pinboard? Rosa Parks? Jon Snow? Curie? Lister? Brunel? da Vinci? The SS Great Britain? Euler? Gauss? Florey? The Wrights? The 1902 Glider or the Wright Flyer 1? Crick/Watson/Franklin (bonus points if you have them in a wrestling ring wearing Luchador masks)? A Crab Canon? Telemann? Steve Kardynal?

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all,” Hypatia of Alexandria.

Have you taken your champion out of your head and told everyone else about them? When we landed on the Moon a vast number of us looked up and, for one moment, we all shared the same vision.

Neil Armstrong lived a good life, one that was useful and surprisingly humble given what he achieved and the position in which he found himself, but he’s gone now and we need more people and inspiration to fill the gap that he left. We need to look up once more.



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