2. "Mankind's Pinnacle": The Lost Legacy

Written October 2009

( This essay is adapted from one which was published in Transit, the magazine of Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society, in December 2009. )

I’m writing this piece in 2009, the year in which we have celebrated the fortieth anniversary of one of the greatest of all human achievements – the first landing of men on the Moon. A friend of mine recently described Project Apollo as “Mankind’s Pinnacle”; I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, and with its inference – that while Apollo was the ultimate triumph of human ingenuity, we have gone steadily downhill ever since!
In the immediate aftermath of Apollo, we dared to imagine a manned mission to Mars within our lifetime, and Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a permanent lunar base by the year 2001 didn’t seem particularly far-fetched. But compare that with the reality; while we have achieved great things with our robotic probes – such as Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and the Mars rovers – humans have never travelled beyond low Earth orbit since 1972.
So where did we go wrong? For one thing, Apollo was the supreme example of what scientists and engineers can do, when they are allowed to get on with it! Contrast that with today, when everything is run by multiple levels of management and bean counters. In 1961, when President Kennedy laid down his challenge to the nation to go to the Moon, Apollo was nothing more than a design study on paper; from that point, once the funding was allocated, it took eight and a half years to build the hardware and get Armstrong and Aldrin to Tranquillity Base.
In today’s world, a new fighter aircraft has been under development for a similar length of time, and has got as far as two prototypes actually flying…
But the main theme of this essay is something equally dismaying – the tragic and baffling fact that “Mankind’s Pinnacle” is now all but forgotten!
Time to admit my age here; I’m not quite as old as the Space Age, but I am ( just ) old enough to remember Apollo 11. I was seven years old at the time, and already fascinated by space. The earliest mission, which I remember knowing about as it happened, was Apollo 8; by the last few landings, I was following the missions avidly. In any astronomical society, or gathering of amateur astronomers, you will probably find a disproportionate number of people of around my age; we are the generation who grew up with the Space Age, and for many of us, the fascination and enthusiasm will stay with us for life. I, for one, consider myself privileged to have lived through it.
In recent years, I’ve had the immense honour and privilege of meeting three of the Apollo astronauts – Charlie Duke and Alan Bean, who landed on the Moon on Apollo 16 and 12 respectively, and Fred Haise, one of the heroes of Apollo 13. I rank those occasions among the Great Moments of my life; the photos of myself with these men, together with their signed crew photos, take pride of place on my living room wall. Another comparable moment was visiting the museum of the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation near Moscow, and seeing and touching the actual capsule in which Yuri Gagarin flew.
But at the same time, I’ve been amazed, and greatly saddened, by the realisation that all of this is completely lost on younger generations! Apart from a very small minority who share our interest, younger people today know virtually nothing about Man’s supreme achievement! And even worse, most of them seem to care even less.
( Yes, I realise that talking about “the younger generation” is going to make me sound like an “old git” – but what follows is something which needs to be said. )
When the excellent film Apollo 13 was released in 1995, I thought that one of the best things about it was that it somehow managed to maintain the tension throughout, despite the fact that everyone already knew the ending. But I soon realised, to my dismay, that a substantial proportion of younger people, who saw the film, didn’t know the ending – they knew nothing of the story, and actually didn’t know whether or not the astronauts made it home alive! ( I guess it didn’t occur to them that if they hadn’t, no-one would ever have made the film. ) One friend, only five years younger than me, watched it as an in-flight movie, just because it was showing – and later told me that she had had no idea how the story ended. A couple of younger work colleagues, in their early 20’s at the time, talked about it as something of which they were just vaguely aware, as something from dim and distant history, before they were born.
Even more disturbing was something which happened just a couple of years ago. As well as meeting the aforementioned astronauts, I went to a talk by Buzz Aldrin – though I didn’t get to meet him. When I told my work colleagues about this, one friend – a pretty intelligent guy, in his early 30’s – responded with, “Who’s he?” He had honestly – and I kid you not - never heard of him!!! He even joked, “Is he Buzz Lightyear’s brother?”, and I had to tell him that he was the man from whom “Buzz Lightyear” got his name. He did, thankfully, know who Neil Armstrong was – but when I told him that Aldrin was the second man on the Moon, he said, “Who cares who was second?” He didn’t even seem to realise that they had landed in pairs.
When I told my friends about seeing Gagarin’s capsule, the same person had also never heard of Gagarin!
Of course, those who don’t have any interest in the subject are not likely to know the names of any other astronauts or cosmonauts – but I would have thought that everyone should know the names of Armstrong and Aldrin, which are inextricably linked in history, and that of Gagarin! My friend responded by saying, “I have no interest in any of that!” – but surely, that’s akin to someone saying they have no interest in politics, so they have never heard of Winston Churchill, or that they have no interest in boxing, so they have never heard of Muhammad Ali! Isn’t it???
That last paragraph contains the crucial phrase – “inextricably linked in history”. And there’s the rub. If you mention “history” to youngsters today, you could almost expect them to say, “What’s that?” “History is a thing of the past” may sound like a corny joke, but in this context, I’m sad to say that it’s far from funny.
It seems to me that all of this is just one small aspect of a far greater malaise, which pervades the whole of society today – certainly in the UK and the USA, and as far as I can tell, in many other countries as well. I could write a lengthy essay on the “dumbing down” of our education system, and consequently of our entire culture, but this isn’t the place. Here, I’ll concentrate on this particular aspect; for most of today’s younger generation, the very concept of history, as a subject of interest or knowledge, is apparently completely alien! There seems to be a prevailing attitude that “if it didn’t happen in my lifetime, who cares?” ( Indeed, the same person who hadn’t heard of Aldrin or Gagarin recently asked me, “Who cares about astronauts? What was the point of going to the Moon?” I replied that I couldn’t expect him to understand the motive behind Apollo, as it was all to do with the politics of a world he never knew. )
A case in point; a contestant on a British TV quiz show was asked a question on an aspect of Twentieth Century history. He had no idea; when told the answer, he actually said, “Well, how am I supposed to know that? It was before I was born!”
Another thing which happened on British TV, a few years ago, pretty well says it all. There was a series called Great Britons; at the end of it, a viewers’ poll was conducted, to decide who was “the greatest British person of all time”. The winner, hardly surprisingly, was Winston Churchill. Yet a substantial proportion of people were apparently unable to differentiate between the concepts of “the greatest of all time” and “the greatest within my own lifetime and personal memory”; they actually voted for… Princess Diana!!! – instead of the likes of Churchill, Horatio Nelson and Sir Isaac Newton!
Please excuse me for a moment, while I go and bang my head against the nearest brick wall…
Now, I don’t pretend to entirely know the cause of this malaise, but I can guess at a few factors. Firstly, we all know that the education system is being steadily and deliberately “dumbed down”; this has been well documented in the more reputable press. When the Government tells us, almost every year, that “a record number of 16-year-olds have achieved Grade A GCSEs”, etc., all it actually means is that the standards are constantly being lowered.
Secondly, we have the internet. Despite its obvious potential as an educational medium, we all know that the useful educational material on the internet is far outweighed by the terabytes of senseless drivel. Undoubtedly, the rise in popularity of assorted lunatic “conspiracy theories” is driven by the ridiculous mentality of “It must be right, because I read it on the internet!” Similarly, there is a tendency for youngsters to regard the net as the fount of all knowledge, and pay no attention to whatever it is they are still being taught at school.
Finally, we have the all-pervading influence of what I call the “moron media”, which constantly propagates today’s idiotic “celebrity culture”. It appears that most of today’s youngsters are obsessed, almost to the exclusion of all else, with the hero-worship of sports or film stars, and with following the totally pointless antics of a multitude of so-called “celebrities” – most of whom have done precisely nothing to merit that description. ( One “newspaper” actually has a column within its “gossip” pages, headed “Do keep up!” )
This brings us back again to the film Apollo 13. A little while after its release, some of my work colleagues were talking about the film, when a young lady, aged 19, interjected, “Oh, I want to see that – Tom Hanks is in it!” She neither knew nor cared what the film was about – just that Tom Hanks was in it! ( I suspect that Mr. Hanks himself wouldn’t be too pleased about that, as he’s a very keen supporter of the space programme. Making the film, and later directing the equally excellent TV series From the Earth to the Moon, were labours of love for him. )
The very meaning of the word “celebrity” has changed beyond recognition. There was a time when it meant a person who had become famous, by virtue of having done something notable or especially worthwhile. Today, the term is applied to every footballer who has played a couple of games for a Premiership club, every singer who has had a single song in the charts, every bit part actor who has appeared in half a dozen episodes of Eastenders… and not to mention all those so-called “reality TV stars”, who become famous for no other reason than making an exhibition of themselves for a few weeks, or for displaying their spectacular levels of ignorance and stupidity! And how exactly does some female nonentity qualify as a “celebrity”, just because she happens to be the girlfriend of a footballer?
Of course, when I tell younger people that I’ve had the honour of meeting some real celebrities, in the old-fashioned meaning – well, you can’t get much more “notable” than a man who walked on the Moon! – they don’t have a clue who they are.
Combining all these factors, we now have an entire generation of kids, who believe that there is nothing more to life than Big Brother, playing mindless computer games, and wearing the “right” brand of trainers. And now it even seems to have gone a stage further; “inspired” – if that’s the right word - by the likes of the Brainless Beckhams, and some of those aforementioned “reality TV” idiots, we now have a culture in which it’s actually considered fashionable, or “cool”, to be utterly thick!!!
You will have realised, I hope, that I’ve used my specific example - lack of knowledge about Apollo – simply to illustrate the overall trend of younger people having little or no interest in science, history or anything remotely intellectual. What can we do about it? Frankly, I’ve no idea.
Thankfully, however, I’ve been over-generalising. All is not entirely lost; there are still some youngsters, who haven’t become part of the “Generation of the Braindead”! Each of the astronauts’ talks has been attended by around 400-500 people; each time, a significant proportion of the audience has consisted of younger people, who were not born at the time of Apollo, and who clearly don’t subscribe to the attitude of “It was before I was born, so who cares?” My friend, who coined the phrase “Mankind’s Pinnacle”, was born the year after the Moon landings ended, but he shares my enthusiasm for space travel, and shows an impressive degree of knowledge of Apollo.
During this anniversary year, I’ve been giving a talk entitled One Small Step: A Celebration of Apollo, to a number of astronomical societies in the UK. When I gave the talk to my own local society, one very interested listener was a 13-year-old lad, David, who regularly comes to the meetings with his dad. David shares his dad’s interest in astronomy and space; before the talk, he knew a bit about Apollo, mainly learned from his dad. But his dad later told me that my talk had been a real eye-opener for David; he had never quite realised what an incredible achievement it was, or appreciated the immense courage of the astronauts. Now he most certainly does.
So if space travel, astronomy, and science in general, can still inspire awe and wonder in just a few youngsters, perhaps there’s still hope after all.

I would like to thank my good friends, the late Andy Fleming, a conversation with whom inspired this essay, and Andy Taylor, for allowing me to use his phrase in its title.

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