The summer of 1969 was one of the most memorable of my wife’s childhood. It was the summer when Lorna, then 10, and her two siblings went to stay with a friend of her mother’s near Gardur, Iceland, a fishing village perched on a tongue of land curling into the North Atlantic from the island’s southwest coast.
Blessed with the perpetual daylight of Iceland’s midsummer, Lorna, her sister and her brother ran with the local children with little regard for the time of day or night. They ate when they were hungry, slept when they were tired. They made forts under racks of drying fish and roamed the moor collecting bouquets of wildflowers. The biggest danger was the threat of being pecked by terns defending their nests on the ground where they ran. They carried sticks over their heads and sang songs to scare away the birds. There was no television. Iceland’s broadcasting authority switched off the country’s only channel every July so its sun-starved employees could enjoy the fleeting summer.
Lorna remembers being summoned on July 20 with some big news: the airwaves would fire up for a few hours so Icelanders could join the rest of the world in witnessing a man walk on the moon for the first time. Her mother’s friend did not own a TV, so the lot of them marched across the moor into the village to a small house where there was one. It was the middle of the night.
Between 15 and 20 villagers of various ages had crammed into a tiny room to watch a black-and-white TV with a screen no larger than a modern-day laptop. “The room was stuffy and tense,” Lorna recalls, “and there were several gruff old fishermen speaking loudly to each other in Icelandic, trying to translate the commentary.” She was unable to make out Neil Armstrong’s scratchy “one small step” over the din and recalls being struck more by the reactions of the villagers than by the ghostly images of Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin shambling around on the lunar surface.
Eight years before that memorable night, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had addressed a special session of Congress and proclaimed that the United States should commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the decade. The official record of the American space agency, NASA, makes no attempt to obscure Kennedy’s motive: he wanted to one-up the Soviet Union in light of some spectacular Soviet successes in space and some spectacular U.S. fiascos on Earth, notably the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba a month earlier. To make it happen, Kennedy was prepared to spend boatloads of money, ignore eminent scientists who feared the moon program would hobble other research and disregard the majority of Americans who were lukewarm (at best) to the idea.
There’s no question that the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago was an adventure unlike anything humans had ever witnessed. The villagers in Gardur were among an estimated 530 million people worldwide who tuned in to the live broadcast, making it the most-watched event to that point in television history. And there’s no disputing that the moon program delivered invaluable scientific data and spun off enormous technological benefits that we take for granted today. But the fact remains that it was chiefly a quest for bragging rights.
As captivating as the spectacle of the moon landing may have been, and as rich as our memories of it may be, the notion that humans would view worlds beyond our own as something to compete for should give us pause. While we were looking up at the moon missions, maybe we should have been looking inward at ourselves as well. What entitles us to walk on other worlds? This question that might have been asked 50 years ago is still relevant today — in fact, increasingly so. For once again, the moon has become a prize in the pursuit of earthly grandeur.
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On a raw, blustery day this past spring, I visited the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Part of a spectacular seven-hectare complex created by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the philanthropic leader of the world’s 20 million Ismaili Muslims, the museum celebrates the contributions of Islam to world civilization. To commemorate the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, it has mounted a special exhibition of archeological, artistic, religious and historical objects illustrating the hallowed place of the moon in Islam and beyond.
I had the exhibit to myself when I toured it mid-week. The solitude seemed apt, moonlike, broken only by the strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the distance and the soundtrack from a video installation showing a group of “wild women” howling at the full moon.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a breathtaking five-metre-diameter replica of the moon suspended from the ceiling, featuring NASA imagery stitched together to create a high-resolution composite rendering of the lunar surface. I imagined it was similar to what the Apollo astronauts saw as they neared their destination. I couldn’t drag myself away. The longer I stared, the more I was struck by how its pockmarked surface seemed to speak so eloquently of the moon’s perfect place in the universe, each crater a testimony to the immutable forces that have shaped not just our world, but all worlds since the beginning of time.
No exhibition can fully plumb the depths of the moon’s place in the human story. Every person who has ever lived has a relationship with it. This connection is physical and almost as old as Earth itself: debris ejected into space after a cataclysmic crash in Earth’s infancy probably coalesced into the crater-strewn sphere we revere today. The pull of the moon on the Earth’s oceans billions of years ago may have triggered the chemistry that led to primitive life, and later the transition of human ancestors from sea to land.
The moon has figured into mysticism, mythology and religion since humans first began trying to make sense of their place in the order of things. It’s present in Indigenous creation stories. The Israelites developed their calendar months around its cycles. The crescent moon predominates in Islamic symbolism. In the Hebrew scriptures, it is present at beginning of creation — “God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser to rule the night…” (Genesis 1:16-18). And in the New Testament, it is there at the end of time: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood …” (Acts 2:20). Artists from every culture in every corner of the world in every epoch of human history have looked to the moon for inspiration, and found it.
For as long as we humans have looked skyward, the moon has been our constant, true companion, its recurring cycles a steadying comfort amid the uncertainties of earthly existence, its light an ally against the dark. Given the extent and intimacy of the relationship, it’s not surprising that the moon should arouse our curiosity. Yet the moon has awakened more than our human need to know. It has also stirred the human instinct to possess and prevail. Armstrong and Aldrin may not have claimed the moon for the United States when they planted the Stars and Stripes in the lunar surface 50 years ago. But the act of planting the flag proclaimed human dominion over it. Annexing the moon — a celestial body beyond the one we inhabit — may have been the most audacious act in human history. From that day forward, the moon became ours.
As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I was addicted to the space race — at least the American part of it. I watched all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and splashdowns. For my seventh birthday, my parents gave me a Styrofoam astronaut’s helmet that I wore everywhere except to bed. In July 1969, I stayed glued to the coverage of Apollo 11 from start to finish. If you had asked my adolescent self whether going to the moon was worth the US$25.4-billion price tag (almost US$180 billion in today’s dollars) at a time when 24 million Americans lived in poverty, I would have answered, “Of course.” It made for great television.
I felt a twinge of boyish anticipation late last winter when I bought a ticket for Apollo 11, a new documentary film that distils thousands of hours of archival material, some of it never shown before, into a 93-minute visual and audio retelling of the moon landing.
From the opening scene of the spacecraft and its Saturn V rocket inching its way to the launch pad, something felt wrong. While they may not have intended to, the filmmakers overwhelm audiences with the vast scale of the Apollo project. The film covers the familiar high points of the mission while shedding fresh light on the epic infrastructure that supported it — the control centres with their rows upon rows of technicians fastened to their monitors, the cavernous assembly buildings, the training facilities, the tracking stations, the recovery operation — the list goes on. Instead of the tingle I used to get from all things Apollo, I felt a creeping disquiet. All this … for what? The Apollo I saw in the movie seemed less like the giddy adventure of my youth and more like a prideful colossus run amok.
A little more than three weeks after the film’s release, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressed a meeting of the National Space Council. Using language that echoed Kennedy’s proclamation to Congress nearly six decades earlier, he announced the Trump administration’s intention to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 “by any means necessary.” America, he declared, will once again “astonish the world with the heights we reach and the wonder we achieve.”
The bygone glories of Apollo confirmed America’s “rightful place as the undisputed leader in the exploration of the heavens,” he said in his remarks, which took a shot at NASA for being too slow in its part to Make America Great Again. Currently, the space agency plans to spearhead an international effort to establish a small outpost named Gateway in lunar orbit that would serve as a platform for missions to the moon’s surface. Last winter, Canada signed on as the first international partner, pledging to contribute a new version of the robotic Canadarm. NASA’s schedule would have seen crews landing on the moon by 2028. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is just not good enough,” Pence told the space council meeting, urging a return to the hard-charging culture of the Kennedy era.
We now know that the Soviets, despite some remarkable early successes with lunar probes, had all but abandoned the idea of being the first to land cosmonauts on the moon by the time Apollo 11 was ready to launch. Today, the Russians seem content to leave the race back to the moon to others while they focus on Earth-orbit missions and selling seats on Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan. In an ironic twist of history, their best customer is the United States, which has not launched an astronaut since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, paying as much as US$81 million for a ride to the International Space Station.
The Trump administration’s impatience with NASA is mostly prompted by concern over China’s space program. Since 2007, China has sent six different probes to the moon. The most recent of these, Chang’e 4, accomplished a lunar first this past January when it successfully landed and deployed a rover on the moon’s far side. Western observers believe a mission to land a vehicle to scoop up some lunar material and return to Earth could be just months away.
The Chinese leadership has openly expressed a desire to send crews to the moon, although they do not appear to be in as much of a hurry as Mike Pence. Given China’s penchant for notching prestigious space firsts, its moon missions could take any number of twists — touching down at one of the moon’s poles, for example, landing on its dark side, staying on the moon’s surface for an extended spell or including women (all 12 humans who have walked on the moon so far have been men).
As the two superpowers jostle for lunar supremacy, private interests are eyeing the moon as a place to do business. In 2007, Google and the XPRIZE Foundation announced a competition that offered US$20 million to the first privately funded effort to successfully land a robot on the moon, get it to travel 500 metres and send back high-definition imagery to Earth. The sponsors cancelled the competition last year after none of the final contestants were able to deliver a winning entry on time. However, a team from Israel, SpaceIL, which was heavily bankrolled and led by billionaire Israeli entrepreneur Morris Kahn, persisted and launched the US$100-million Beresheet probe in February. It made it to the moon this past spring but crashed while attempting to land on the lunar surface.
The Israelis say they’ll try again, while teams from the United States, Germany, Japan and India are continuing to develop robotic landers that were begun during the XPRIZE competition. They, and people like Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, envisage governments and private customers paying them to deliver cargo, or perhaps to construct facilities for mining on the moon — a source for hard-to-find gases such as helium-3, which could fuel nuclear fusion reactors, and rare-earth elements such as scandium and yttrium used in electronics. Last year, NASA announced that a new analysis of data from India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter had confirmed the presence of water ice at the moon’s poles. The news raised tantalizing new possibilities for monetizing the moon — for example, construction of permanent lunar bases, or facilities for extracting oxygen and hydrogen from lunar ice to make rocket fuel for missions deeper into space, perhaps to Mars.
Equally enticing is the vagueness of regulations limiting commercial activity on the moon. A 1967 treaty prohibits nations from militarizing and claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies, but has been criticized as being vague on the activities of private interests. A 1984 UN agreement attempted to close loopholes by calling for the establishment of an international regime to govern the exploitation of the moon’s resources. To date, only 18 nations have ratified it — a list that doesn’t include Russia, China, the United States or India.
My wife, Lorna, can’t remember if she watched Apollo 11’s return to Earth from her Icelandic vantage point. I remember it vividly — the heart-pounding minutes during re-entry while the capsule was out of radio contact, the feeling when it was over that it was always going to have a happy ending because we were on the right side of history, the good guys.
The astronauts brought back 22 kilograms of lunar rocks, pebbles, dust and soil samples, part of a total haul topping 380 kilograms after the sixth and final Apollo moon landing in 1972. Scientists are still studying the material; NASA says it distributes about 400 samples each year for research and educational purposes. The Apollo missions also deployed dozens of experiments that transmitted data back to Earth, in some cases for years after the Apollo program wound down.
Today, the moon missions tend to be remembered more for advancing human knowledge than for the geopolitical agenda that underpinned them — the Soviet Union is long gone, but the science endures. Thanks to Apollo, we know a lot more about the moon than we did in July 1969. But you could argue that the program left its greatest mark before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. The iconic “Earthrise” photo taken by the astronauts on Apollo 8 as they orbited the moon in December 1968 gave humanity the first clear picture of our fragile blue planet floating alone in the vastness of space, and is credited with helping to kick-start the worldwide environmental movement.
However, the battles still raging over issues such as climate change suggest that many earthlings continue to cling to the notion that this planet exists to fill human needs and satisfy our appetites. The pervasive logic of anthropocentrism — the idea that humans are the be-all-and-end-all of the universe — helps to explain the casual assumption that the moon is also part of our domain: the Earth belongs to humans; the moon is Earth’s moon; ergo, the moon belongs to us, too. For all its enduring potency as a spiritual and cultural symbol, for all the earthly ambition it has inspired, the moon has never been the subject of sustained ethical inquiry. Perhaps our indifference to the rights and wrongs of our relationship with the moon means we haven’t fully considered the rights and wrongs of our relationship with the Earth.
Nevertheless, there are hints that significant swaths of society harbour deep misgivings to begin with about sending humans to the moon. Polls taken in the 1960s show public support in the United States for the Apollo program never topped 53 percent, in spite of the historic successes it was scoring. The pros and cons of going back to the moon are hardly the stuff of dinner-party conversation today, yet the doubts that prevailed 50 years ago persist. A Pew Research study last year revealed that only 13 percent of 2,500 Americans surveyed ranked sending humans to the moon as a top priority. Using satellites and robotic spacecraft to monitor climate change and potentially dangerous asteroids scored much higher.
Half a century ago, America’s leaders did not let public qualms dampen their resolve to get to the moon first. The current U.S. leadership shows a similar disregard in its cockeyed determination to be first a second time. In the face of such wilfulness, it will be up to the public to insist on the kind of debate an undertaking of this magnitude ought to occasion. A small step would be to question the urgency of the mission. It would be a giant leap if this 50th anniversary inspired a wider debate about ourselves, our planet and our closest celestial neighbour, and whether anyone has any business being there at all.
This story was originally featured in Broadview’s July/August 2019 edition with the title “One small step.” To read more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.