No, we don’t have a Moon base. No, we haven’t been to Mars.

“It seems space is no longer the place that inspires our common ambitions and hopes. It is just somewhere else where there is some money to be made”

Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin steps onto the Moon. Credit: NASA

Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin steps onto the Moon. Credit: NASA

This is an interesting point, but ultimately one that I disagree with. I can’t put my finger on why. I think my opinion comes from watching children and adults alike look amazed at so much that goes on out in space and how much people want to talk about space. It might come from the inspiration I feel whenever I think about the determination and skill it takes to send anything into space, be it robotic or human. That’s not to say I think money isn’t being made through space. It is and I’m glad it is – financial incentives to invest in space technology are an important reason for technological improvements!

The above quote is from an academic paper (Goodings, Brown & Parker; 2013; hereafter referred to as GBP13) discussing how the Apollo moon landings are remembered now. I came across this paper because it was emailed to all members of staff at the National Space Centre, Leicester, UK (where I currently work) as the memories the authors analyse were provided by our visitors. I really enjoyed reading the paper, and I strongly recommend you read it too. (I have a pdf version I’m happy to email out if asked – tweet at me or leave a comment below if you want it)

As I read GBP13 I was struck by a number of things:

I hadn’t ever realised that while John F Kennedy made the famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1961, his assassination was in 1963 so he never saw the successful culmination of the Apollo programme. JFK never watched Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon.

There really aren’t that many academic papers which have to explain angel delight! Which I should now do – angel delight is “a notoriously unhealthy and cheap dessert made from a powder of artificial ingredients” (from GBP13). One of the written memories used as an example referred to angel delight.

I have no recollection of when I first saw the footage of Neil Armstrong’s “small step”, or first heard the famous line “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This has always been in my memory and I can’t imagine it any other way. I wonder which events of my lifetime will feel this way for future generations.

One of the exhibits at the National Space Centre is a 1960s replica living room. Visitors are encouraged to write responses on small pieces of card and attach them to the wall. The cards have one of two phrases on the top, either “My strongest memory of the Moon landings is…” or “Things I associate with the 1960s and 1970s are…”. GBP13 read and qualitatively analysed 400 cards, all written between February and August 2010.

GBP13 discusses three ‘distinct narratives’ that people use to remember the Moon landings:

  • ‘My generation’ – the Moon landings are seen as a key part of a ‘generational collective memory’. For a lot of people, the Moon landings represent that decade and the many other events that occurred then.
  • ‘Watching the landings’ – the personalisation of history; the event of the Moon landings becomes a personal memory because it is associated with waking up in the middle of the night and watching it live on your family’s new TV.
  • ‘Remembering the future’ – after the Apollo programme hopes were high for a Moon base and humans on Mars and beyond. These have so far remained in the world of science fiction; a future that never quite came to fruition.

GBP13 concludes by discussing a modern expedition to reclaim the Apollo mission rocket engines from the bottom of the ocean. This is being led by CEO Jeff Bezos. He recently announced that some recovered engine parts bear serial numbers which link them to the Apollo 11 mission, the very first time man put footprints on the Moon.

Engine nozzle from an Apollo mission underwater. Credit: Besoz Expeditions

Engine nozzle from an Apollo mission underwater. Credit: Besoz Expeditions

Jeff Besoz has publicly talked about hoping to ‘inspire a few more youth to invent and explore’ with this endeavour. GBP13 compare this with the incredible aim of the Apollo programme to ‘reach for the stars’ and seem to lament the stark difference in ambition.

I agree with everything in their paper up to this point; I don’t think space “lacks our common ambitions and hopes” at all. No, we don’t have a Moon base. No, we haven’t been to Mars. But that doesn’t mean we lack fascination with our Universe. That doesn’t mean just as many people don’t stop on a clear night and stare at the stars.

To me the difference is we’ve found so many things out there to be fascinated by that we don’t just aim for one anymore. We have no single goal; we have many goals. We are trying to decipher the beginnings of our Universe, trying to find alien worlds, trying to understand the human body in space, trying to map our Universe and trying to do all of this all at once!

Humanity doesn’t lack ambition, we have more ambition than ever.

This post was based on:

Organising images of futures-past: remembering the Apollo moon landings; Goodings, Brown and Parker; 2013; International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy; pre-print copy

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