( Hope people won't mind me being a bit flowery here, I've been writing this up on my blog and it set me thinking... I hope it'll at least inspire a few of the more senior members to share their memories with us young 'uns...! )
On July 20th 1969 the lunar module "Eagle" landed in the Sea of Tranquility, that's 38 years ago tomorrow, which means it's almost 40 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, established "Tranquility Base", and changed the history and destiny of Mankind forever by leaving the pressurised safety of their lunar module and stepping out into the airless void of a lunar day, to stand on the cratered, dusty Moon at the triumphant climax of the Apollo 11 mission.
Oh yes, I remember it well...
Actually, I'm not sure I do. And it's really, really bugging me.
I was born in 1965, which means I would have been the grand old age of 4 1/2 on the day Eagle landed. Old enough to watch the TV coverage, certainly, but to actually remember it? Hmmm. Over the years I've always told people that one of my earliest memories is of watching "the Moon landing", I suppose as some kind of proof that I've been "into" this space stuff all my life, but now I can't help wondering if I've just seen the TV footage so many times, in films and on TV history programs, and on space DVDs and videos that I've just convinced myself I saw it "live" when really I was tucked up in bed, fast asleep, as any sane 4.5 yr old terran child would have been. I asked my mum if I saw it, and she can't remember; she confirmed that yes, I was a space cadet even then, but she's not sure if I saw it live or if I saw it on a TV news programme later in the day, which doesn't really help...
I wish I knew if I saw the landing live, or not. But what can I do? I guess it's just one of those things that's going to bug the hell out of me forever.
But my lack of 100% certainty about seeing the landing live doesn't change the fact that tomorrow is the anniversary of one of history's most incredible events, an event which has been hailed many times as a turning or defining point in human history. And rightly so. When Armstrong stepped off Eagle's landing leg pad, swung his leg over the side and planted his boot into the grey lunar dust That Was It. No longer were we a one planet species, we'd travelled to the Moon - the Moon! - and walked on it. On that night, people were able to look up at theMoon shining in the sky and for the First Time Ever see it as a place where people had been, for real. The Moon wasn't just a mottled, round lantern in the sky any more, but a real place, a world, ripe for exploration and exploitation. I've watched the documentaries and films so I know what the mood was like back then: we - people, men and women, Mankind - thought we could do anything. If we could conquer the Moon, well, Mars was next, and by the time people had conquered Mars "normal people" would be holidaying in space, walking on the Moon themselves, living in huge ring-shaped space stations, wearing silver space clothing and eating whole meals in a single pill!
Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way. After reaching the Moon half a dozen times we fled home again, tail between our legs, and hid from the universe. It was as if the first cave dwellers had staggered to the cave mouth, looked outside, seen the sunlit lands beyond and thought "Naah, can't be bothered..." and shuffled back inside into the damp and the shadows again.
As Tasmin Archer sang in her wonderful song "Sleeping Satellite"...
Did we fly to the moon too soon?
Did we squander the chance?
In the rush of the race
in the reason we chase is lost in romance
and still we try
to justify the waste
for a taste of mans greatest adventure.
But that's a rather unkind view, and certainly Man's Retreat From The Moon wasn't the fault of the brave Apollo astronauts who rode those mighty Saturn 5's into space and clung onto them, like dragon riders, as they thundered to the Moon. Their achievements can't be downplayed or underestimated. Their heroism and bravery can't be dismissed, however un-PC it might to have those traits now. For a brief, golden time, a shining Camelot time, the world really was united in one common noble goal - to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth again. And when Armstrong stepped off the lunar module's foot, 38 years ago tomorrow, and spoke those immortal words... "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind"... he truly was the first Ambassador from the troubled, troublesome Earth.
But I don't know if I saw it on my family TV as it happened, or later, once I woke, once Armstrong and Aldrin were safely back inside the LEM, once the world had turned on its axis some ways, and after History had moved already on.
If you were lucky enough to see the Moon landing live, and remember it clearly well, I envy you, I really do. What an amazing thing that must have been, to sit watching a flickering TV screen as thefirst human being to set foot on another world hopped down a ladder and stepped out onto the dust and into the infinity of the future. If you're not old enough to remember it, but want to know what it was like, then I urge you to watch the start of the amazing film "Apollo 13"... or the DVD box set of "FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON" - no, not just the "Apollo 11" episode but the whole series, because every moment of that HBO special is magnificent in countless ways, watching it is like travelling back in time, trust me. Or you could go to the library and hire one of the NASA DVDs or videos from its reference section, and watch the TV footage that way. If you live near an IMAX cinema, and if it's showing, go see "DESTINATION: MOON" the 3D film created to recreate the Apollo landings. I watched it with tears streaming down my face, it moved, and inspired and enraged me so much all at the same time. Whatever you do, just find a way to live - or re-live - those amazing, titanic moments as best you can. You won't be sorry.
I have grown up believing I watched the Moon landing live, picturing myself as a 4 and a half year old sitting in his warm pyjamas in front of the big 1969 TV set, yawning, fighting to stay awake, desperate to See It... but I don't know if I did. Now, sitting here, I wonder if, after all the years of expectation, I'll actually live long enough to see the first man or woman set foot on Mars. I've always thought I would, but I'm 42 now, and with the first manned mission to Mars no nearer than 2030 that means I'll be 65 on Landing Day... possible, but not guaranteed. I might miss it, I really might. That would be heartbreaking.
Many kids I talk to in schools today during my Outreach work don't believe it actually happened, they have fallen for the "We never went to the Moon" conspiracy theories, which is heartbreaking in a different way entirely. Other kids simply think of the Moon landings as some faraway historical event, as relevent to their iPod and Myspace generation as the Battle of Hastings or the signing of the Magna Carta. Which is a great, great shame.
... but none of that self-indulgent whining changes the fact that 38 years ago tomorrow human beings walked on the surface of another world for the very first time. So, rejoice in that, remember it if you can, and if you can't then look up at the Moon on the next clear night and think how amazing, how incredible it is that once, a long time ago, people from Earth stood on the Moon and looked back.