17 July 2009

Apollo wot?

Here's something to which I shouldn't admit unless I want to bring scorn down upon my head. The lunar landing by Apollo 11, whose 40th anniversary is currently being celebrated, didn't make much of an impression on me.

I was seventeen, and studying (amongst other things) maths and physics. I had been wowed by Yuri Gagarin, and by Alexei Leonev's space walk. I ought to have been a prime candidate for impression by first steps on the moon ... but it didn't happen.

I wasn't alone in this; amongst my teenaged friends at the time, the landing was discussed as interesting but no more than that: certainly not as the epoch making moment now being commemorated.

Not that I was immune to the allure of either Apollo or the moon. Along with my local contemporaries at the time, I had been moved to transports of wonder at Apollo 8's lunar orbit a few months before. A year and a bit later, I was riveted by Lunokhod 1's excursions in the Sea of Rains.

As an adult scientist, I can rationalise this. Apollo 8 demonstrated, for the first time, ability to leave the Earth. Lunokhod demonstrated the ability to place a long term extraterrestrial working scientific presence – including, by extension, those environments which are inaccessible to human beings through either distance or hostile conditions, The human landing demonstrated, in practical terms, nothing beyond Luna 9's soft machine landing a couple of years earlier. I can't, however, claim to have realised any of that at the time (though others perhaps may have done so) ... my relative indifference wasn't thought out.

As an adult I also recognise the reasons for most people having responded differently: the Apollo 11 landing was a powerful poetic moment more than a scientific one. I don't think I lacked the poetic impulse; perhaps I was just a moody and hormonal teenager. Or perhaps the tragedy of the previous year's Prague Spring, and/or the excitement of imminent summer holidays (including plans to attend the upcoming Woodstock festival a month later) just crowded out such trivial side issues as humankind's greatest adventure?


Ray Girvan said...

I didn't grip me massively at the time (I was 13) - mainly because there was scarcely any chance to watch television. I was on a school trip to Austria, stopping overnight en route at Nancy, and several of us sneaked out to watch it (or a news re-run, I forget which) in a television shop window. The memory of it is just a small part in a larger picture of staying in a grubby French hotel and being herded around on a long cross-Europe coach trip.

Felix Grant said...

Perhaps the fact that I and my group were, at the time, living on a Mediterranean island had a similar influence on our outlook.

We had easy and constant access to TV, but didn't watch it much – too many other opportunities to exploit. I certainly don't remember watching any of the Apollo 11 coverage at the time ... I do remember seeing it in the newspapers, and a few desultory conversations about it on the school bus...

Dr. C said...

I had a comment but the editor ate it for lunch.

Basically, do we (should we) always remember where we were at when something historical happens? I can't remember VE or VJ day but I almost two. Kennedy's assassination? Definitely. Nixon's resignation? yep. Moon landing? yep. Then its a big fog until this morning

Ray Girvan said...

I've no recollection at all of the news of Kennedy's assassination, but I do recall some of the day after: the first ever episode of Dr Who.

Felix Grant said...

When the Kennedy assassination news came through, I was watching The Channel Niners (an Australian children's show).

Bobo the Clown was in full flow, doing daft stuff, and he suddenly stopped in mid word, listening to something of camera, then dropped his arms to his sides and walked off frame. That, and not the assassination itself, is what I remember.

Or so I have always genuinely believed. However, I have since realised that this must be a false memory...
The assassination was at 1830Z. The Channel Niners was a teatime show, which on Adelaide time means it showed somewhere around the slot 0700Z-1000Z.