I was sorry to hear of the death of Neil Armstrong. I know he was 82; and some would say that’s a good age and innings in life; yet for me anyone’s death while eventually inevitable is a loss for those of us still living. Neil Armstrong is no exception. The Apollo program became so much a part of our generation and my life as a teenager growing up in New Zealand. I was 16 in 1969. Although I admit that at that time my main interests centered around the release of Led Zepplin’s first recorded album-Led Zepplin 1, the untimely death (isn’t all death untimely?) of Brian Jones the founder of the Rolling Stones, in his swimming pool, the Woodstock music festival, and the release of my all time favorite Beatle’s Album Abbey Road. However, on July 16th (my birthday) I was distracted briefly to hear on the news that Apollo 11 had been launched and would take around 4 days to arrive at the moon and attempt the first moon landing. Remember, this was the age before Lost in Space, Star Trek and Star Wars and such an event was seen as perhaps the greatest human achievement since the Wright Brothers took Da Vinci’s design and constructed and flew an airplane.
The Apollo program ran from when I was 8 years old in 1961 to when I turned 19 in 1972. It became part of my education in primary and secondary school too; especially in an age where televisions were a luxury for even the middle class. Sequestered in a school library, newsagent or a bookshop, I carefully poured over and scrutinized the colorful glossy pictures from various Apollo Missions which were published in periodicals like Life and Time and found myself momentarily distracted from the narcissism of adolescence to ponder greater possibilities about life, its complexities and inherent meaning. Some of the most memorable were of the earth rises as seen from the Apollo 8 and 11 voyages-our tiny blue planet awash in a sea of black, lifeless space.
The exploration of earth has been fraught with conflict and disagreement about intentionality, motive and end result. Space exploration is no exception and is part of this historical discourse. It grew out of a dangerous political race between the United States of America and the former USSR. Each country in its attempt to gain superiority over the other in terms of space exploration and military armaments brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Fortunately today we benefit from space exploration and its discoveries. Having moved beyond the age of conflict and Dente, the United States and the Russian Federation now share their space exploration work through the International Space Station. And as I write, the Mars rover Curiosity is testing out maneuvers to help unravel that planet’s history within the mysterious complexities of our own.
Yet there are those who doubt and conspire that human’s have never left earth let alone stepped foot on the moon (heaven knows what conspiracists make of ordinary everyday airplane flights-and they can even see these!). For some people the idea that humans have left the earth and walked on the moon is a mere fantasy, a myth and part of a wider more insidious form of conspiracy to manipulate the people’s understanding of the course of human history. Also, it has become a very lucrative industry for the hoax purveyors who trawl the internet and prey on the gullibility and sensibilities of the uneducated, the lost, the lonely and the plain bored. Conspiracists eschew the rational along with the over-whelming scientific evidence which supports the Apollo missions and their subsequent moon landings.
However, conspiracy theories hold a certain kind of appeal for certain kinds of people. They provide a conclusion (though often not a very convincing one) to many of the conundrums which we ordinary people face when confronted with the new, or the inexplicable. Our primitive imaginings raise questions and then have us thinking in concluding statements, and in an undisciplined fashion we work backwards to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. How could science achieve this or that? Why are the rich and powerful seemingly in control? Why are people of a particular race or culture more adept at social-economic management? Why are governments so secret about the weapons programs? Why did so and so die at that time and in those particular circumstances? And the ever burgeoning espionage industry doesn’t help matters either-we all are under some sort of surveillance today-whether we like it or not. However, whether or not the CIA, FBI, MI6 or any other intelligence gathering or counter espionage service is interested in Facebook pics of me bungee jumping, or texting my sister about her MRI results remains to be seen.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Charlie Duke, the lunar module pilot from the 1972 Apollo 16 mission. He was attending a conference as one of a panel of keynote speakers at the institution where I teach. I was excited about this event and encouraged my students to attend and meet him, moreover I encouraged them to address the conspiracy theory question directly to Charlie, and clear the matter up once and for all. Most declined saying they knew the moon landings were a hoax and didn’t need to ask anyone about their authenticity. These were undergraduate students studying for degrees in engineering, business and IT. So in their absence I asked Charlie the question. “Charlie, how do you respond to the conspiracy theorists that the moon landings were a hoax?” “Well” he said, with a grin, “I’ve heard them all before-I can understand faking it once, but why would we do it 6 times?” “Anyway it was real, I was there”. I was there too in a fashion-watching those grainy black & white pictures beamed live from the Sea of Tranquility via NASA on a friend’s TV in Christchurch New Zealand.
For me the death of Neil Armstrong isn’t about whether or not men landed on the moon. They did. It would be a mere cliché to describe Armstrong simply as a space explorer. He was a son to a mother and father, a boy to himself and his friends, a young man, an adult, a father and husband, each role lived with equal ambition and fierce determination. He was a man who held a rational view of the world, contrary to the views held by conspiracists. He was a highly skilled pilot, astronaut and aeronautics engineer. He was the first human being to step foot on another celestial body other than earth. I am still in awe of his achievement and the achievements of science, and all those who enabled him to step onto the moon and utter his immortal phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But such well founded opinions won’t be enough to sway the conspiracists who live and play in the schizophrenic reality of a Dumbledorian fantasy land. But I challenge them to say thank you Neil Armstrong for walking on the moon and handing over your life and legacy to inspire future generation to achieve what today we may think is unachievable.