Thursday, August 30, 2012

Neil Armstrong, and other relics of a bygone future

Television One commemorated Neil Armstrong's death by sending its reporters into the streets to ask folks how they had reacted to the news that men had walked on the moon back in 1969. There were memories of excited gatherings around blurry television sets, and of late night trips into backyards to stare up at the moon and wonder at the ingenuity of humanity.

It's a pity that the reporters didn't talk to Kiwis too young to remember the moon landings of 1969, because for the generations after the Baby Boomers Neil Armstrong and his comrades sometimes provoke different emotions.

During my 1980s childhood, the Apollo mission to the moon already seemed like something from a glorious but bygone era. Armstrong and Aldrin's joyful hours on the lunar surface, which saw them cracking jokes and playing a game of mini-golf as well as doing serious scientific work, contrasted with the endless, pointless journeys that astronauts of the eighties made into the boring stretch of space between the earth and its satellite. The dour space shuttles which navigated near space looked more like the jumbo jets of passenger airlines than the dramatic rocket which took Armstrong to the Sea of Tranquility.

The journey to the moon had been only one of scores of dramatic, history-making events of the late 1960s and early '70s. While Armstrong had been rehearsing his moon walk, millions of his countrymen had been demonstrating against racism at home and war in Vietnam, workers had been staging the largest general strike in history in Europe, and dozens of nations had been liberating themselves from colonialism in Africa and Asia. The Beatles had been reinventing music and Goddard had been reinventing film.

Many of the people who lived through the late '60s and early '70s found those years chaotic and aggravating,  but by the time I was a kid events like the American Civil Rights movement and the strikes of May 1968 had become the stuff of history, and had acquired a peculiar glamour. In the World Book Encyclopedia I loved to thumb as a child, photos of Martin Luther King and handsome young Parisian rioters sat beside images of the moon landing and the Beatles in an article called The Modern World.

The sixties had been a time of relative prosperity as well as glamorous disorder. As a glum Philip Sherry broadcast the latest rise in unemployment on the six o'clock news during the dreary and austere Rogernomics era, my father loved to tell me how plentiful jobs were in the New Zealand of his childhood. Back in the sixties, he assured me, workers didn't apply for jobs - employers applied for workers. Graduates from high schools and universities had the pick of almost any career they wanted, and a job on the docks paid as well as a job in an office.

The year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was the year before capitalism's longest boom ended. From the forties 'til the end of the sixties, Western economies grew continuously, and unemployment fell to historic lows. In the seventies the long boom gave way to an era of stagnation, as the contradictions inherent in capitalism awoke from their long slumber. In the eighties the economic crisis saw a nasty shift to the right, as politicians like Thatcher, Reagan and our own Roger Douglas tried to restore the profitability of business by cutting state spending and letting state-subsidised industries go to the wall. In the late nineties and early noughties economies expanded again, and Thatcherites claimed that the tough policies of the eighties had created a new era of prosperity. But the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession which has followed it have shown that the boom at the beginning of our century had more to do with accounting tricks than real growth.

Neil Armstrong and his era made a child of the eighties like me feel faintly melancholic, as though I'd missed out on some great adventure. For Ross Wolfe, who is a generation younger than me, the prosperity and optimism of the sixties are a torment. Wolfe is a New York graduate student, a dissident member of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the author of a long, angry polemic called 'Memories of the Future', which excoriates the fin de siecle West for its economic stagnation, romantic anti-modernism, and low political horizons.

Like Two Dollar Stores, the Tea Party Movement, and the Jerry Springer Show, 'Memories of the Future' is a product of the exhaustion of American capitalism. As he ponders the rusting factory towns and philistine politics of contemporary America, Wolfe is haunted by earlier, headier times:

The society of the present has for several decades now been “post-futurist"...existing literally after the future historically came and went...In the absence of any viable future, the gaze of all humanity turns impotently toward the past...Hidden in the otherwise freakish sideshow of the Republican primaries this past winter, there would seem to have been a slim sliver of truth — a truth concealed in the opportunistic campaign slogans and Super PAC fundraisers of Romney and Gingrich: “Restore Our Future” and “Winning Back Our Future,” respectively.  Obama’s campaign from four years ago, despite its many promises of “hope,” “progress,” and “change,” was implicitly built on comparisons to MLK, JFK, and FDR (i.e., three figures from the past).  But then again, who today can be bothered to remember all the unkept promises and cynical electioneering of just four years ago?

Besides Obama and Romney, sixties leaders like Kennedy and King seem almost otherworldly. Where Kennedy's talk of technological revolution and King's speeches about social transformation seemed not only plausible but prophetic to their audiences, Obama and Romney recite words like 'hope', 'change' and 'progress' in the visionless, superstitious way that medieval peasants used to recite fragments of Latin prayer.

The moon landing of 1969 now seems so distant from us that it has acquired some of the qualities of fantasy.

In his famous first words from the moon, Armstrong presented his adventure as another step, albeit a large one, in humanity's steady forward march. Contemporary pundits predicted that voyages to the moon would quickly become routine, and that America would establish colonies there before the end of the century. In our 'post-futurist' era, though, the journey of 1969 increasingly appears as a magical, unrepeatable event, the greatest feat of a lost civilisation.

Last year the American fantasist Jonathan Mitchell  produced a radio play which imagined the adventure of 1969 ending in disaster. Mitchell's drama, which can be downloaded from the Guardian's podcast page, includes a reading of the 'contingency speech' that Richard Nixon was ready to make if Armstrong and Aldrin had not returned from their journey. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Nixon's 'disaster' speech, with its vision of the astronauts lying dead beside their landing craft, seems less fantastic than the success of the mission to the moon.

I've also been guilty of reimagining Neil Armstrong's journey to the moon. Here's the title poem from my first book:

To The Moon, In Seven Easy Steps

1. You’re right: a small spaceship could be shot from a great gun. A hollow shell, for instance, could be fired from a nine hundred foot cannon. Unfortunately, the astronauts would be killed the second the shell was fired: they would be thrown against the floor of the shell and have every one of their bones broken. Quite apart from that, the shell itself would be destroyed by the determined resistance of the air residing in the barrel of the gun. Imagine for yourself the melancholy fate of a hollow shell hurled, at thirty five and a half times the speed of sound, against an air wall confined to a nine hundred foot tube – against a barrier quite impossible to part or push aside. We shall never get to the moon by giant artillery.

2. Nor shall we get to the moon by giant aeroplane. An aeroplane uses the sloping  surfaces of its clever propellers to lever itself through the air. Around the moon, though, there is no air. Nor, let us be clear, can swans, whirlwinds, wings of eagle or vulture, or balloons lift us anywhere near that mysterious, silently moving light.

3. Perhaps the problems we face are perennial. Problems, problematic views recede from the centre of concern, only to dominate later on. Aeroplanes take off, circulate, then fall out of the sky. Moons wax and wane, pass from palm to palm. Why won’t theories stay refuted? Why won’t problems dissolve, in this upraised glass?

4. Perhaps we have never been to the moon. Perhaps we should shut windows and doors, and leave the floor undusted, and sit, silently, on the dirt, reading old newspapers in the dark. Maybe then we’ll forget that we’re at home, and be able at last to leave?

5. I have deceived you. Let us proceed to our proper business, now that the wise men have nodded themselves to sleep. It is not likely that you will ever stumble across a frozen lake, an automatic machine gun, and a light sled all at the same time, but if you do, you should amuse yourself by strapping the gun to the sled, pushing the sled on the lake, and setting the gun firing. The bullets will fly in one direction (not yours, I trust), the sled will slide in another direction, and you will know how a rocket works!

6. As you will by now have gathered, the first spaceship was simple enough: just a box with a number of rockets fastened to it. The first astronaut sat in the box, lit the rockets, and was shot away into the sky in his little carriage. The sled cuts across the lake, its stupid silver face. Now the landscape is generalised by your height. Soon it will become a map.

7. Where does the atmosphere end? There is no definite boundary. It just thins away and disappears, as our eyes lose interest. At the edge of the atmosphere we would be like people at the edge of a racing day crowd - able to move freely away, to leave behind those excited nervous persons jammed into the centre. We would be hydrogen become so thin that its molecules fly away, into space. The atmosphere ends here.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Scott said...

God. That poem (I've only just reread it) seems pretty weak now.
Apologies to the world for it...

1:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cathep33809it's ok - we should never critique our own work-it's depressing

8:22 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Wise words cathe! It never seemed like one of the stronger pieces in the book, but I always liked that title!

8:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jonathan Mitchell's moon podcast is amazing!

11:32 am  
Blogger Ross Wolfe said...

Nice post. Thanks for the mention.

12:44 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

I always thought it was nice of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull to remember Michael Collins in song. For a short time he must have been the loneliest man in the world.

For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me.

"Watery eyes of the last sighing seconds Blue reflections mute and dim Beckon tearful child of wonder To repentance of the sin

And the blind and lusty lovers Of the great eternal lie Go on believing nothing Since something has to die

And the ape's curiosity Money power wins And the yellow soft mountains Move under him
I'm with you L.E.M Though it's a shame that it had to be you The mother ship is just a blip From your trip made for two

I'm with you boys So please employ just a little extra care It's on my mind I'm left behind when I should have been there Walking with you

And the limp face hungry viewers Fight to fasten with their eyes Like the man hung from the trapeze Whose fall will satisfy

And congratulate each other On their rare and wondrous deed That their begrudged money bought To sow the monkey's seed

And the yellow soft mountains They grow very still Witness as intrusion The humanoid thrill
I'm with you L.E.M Though it's a shame that it had to be you The mother ship is just a blip From our trip made for two

I'm with you boys So please employ just a little extra care It's on my mind I'm left behind when I should have been there Walking with you, with you, with you"

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a load of fucking shit

2:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As if.

11:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I remember the moon landing like it was yesterday. I was hugely exciting. I was at the Railway Workshops (1969) and all work stopped. TV wasn't big, I didn't have one then I think, but it came over the radio, which believe it or not, is always more dramatic.

(Actually it didn't occur to me and probably many others there at the time we might "see" it on TV).

Charlie Baker, a friend of mine, the ex British Army Sergeant and then Communist Party theoretician, refused to listen to the broadcast, and carried on working of as a protest. His attention was fixed on the My Lai massacre...which came to obsess David Mitchell. Charlie, who had been a professional in the army as a young man and fought in WW2, was upset by that quite deeply as he himself knew the way armies work. He had been on "search and destroy missions" in putting down rebellions etc in India.

But the My Lai Massacre is only the tip of the ice burg. (Calley who actioned it got away with a slap on his hand, in fact people in the US protested that there was any legal action against him and his mates at all, as he had a right to massacre civilians as war was on!!) There were hundreds of massacres atrocities carried out by Allied soldiers, including NZrs, ANZACS; (and there is evidence they gunned down unarmed Turkish prisoners at Gallipoli also) in Vietnam, as documented in Joanna Burke's "An Intimate History of Killing" but her book also shows that massacres of civilians and massacres rather than "straight fighting" is the rule rather than the exception (and she only looks at the "allies" and about 4 wars (data easier to obtain)and there have been hundreds (thousands, probably more if you go beyond the C20th, so the implications are depressing for human beings.))

Massacres and the killing of civilizations continues in Iraq and Afghanistan (and many other places.)

So yes, it was exciting, but the nation that sent it there was at that time prosecuting one of the most barbaric and brutal and futile wars in all of human history. The US should be called 'The United Napalm You Bastards Into the Stone Age While We Spend Billions On Our Space Games, Sex, American Idol, and Movies Stars.'

But the Space stuff excited me as teenager as I had a big interest in in astronomy but it was a "space race" (which in the beginning the Russians won.)

The sixties were exciting times but there was also some hope for change, and a lot of meaningful protest...whereas now people have sunk into apathy and "theory". Now the exploration of space etc seems quite futile.

The distances are too vast and humans cannot travel fast enough to get a pigeon's fart near anything of any interest. It is known as "fiddling while Rome burns". Better to stay home and watch re-runs of Star Trek.

1:32 am  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

"...Now the exploration of space etc seems quite futile..."

If we are to avoid a Malthusian disaster EXPLOITATION (as opposed to exploration) of space is not only desirable but absolutely vital, and not even that expensive for a superpower like the United States. Space is often considered a very expensive place to go, but it isn't really. Consider this. At it's very height in 1965 NASA got, in 2012 dollars, around 42-45 billions. from then until 1975 its budget was slashed by two thirds, mostly under that crook Nixon (the worst president in US history by a million AU) until it steadied out and now sits at around 18 billions (note this is the civilian program, the US military spends around 20 billions PA, and gets a lot less bang for its buck than NASA, on what some now argue is the REAL US space program). But anyway, US total defence spending is currently estimated to be running at a little over one trillion dollars - one thousand billion dollars - per annum. If NASA was funded back to it's Apollo heights it would still consume less than 50 billions per year. In other words, about a fortnight of the weapons spending of the USA or less than a week of the planets total spend on weapons. The same sort of numbers can be used to illustrate how little is spent on things like fusion research. Safe to see if the United States spent a week of it's military spending on fusion, they would have a economically viable production fusion reactor by 2025.

If the United States were to triple NASAs budget and direct it to exploitation of the solar systems resources, then within a decade several breakthrough technologies would probably become available, such as the space elevator, advanced production Nuclear Thermal Rockets, and sophisticated robotic mining technologies to name but three. The creation and building of a fleet of robotic asteroid mining ships and perhaps the construction of refining facilities on the moon (because the moon is protected by the earths magnetic field, making it reasonably suitable for human habitation in up to six month shifts) before using space elevators to ship this refined material back to earth promises a mineral bonanza. Everything from hydrocarbons from Titan to metals from the asteroid belt would be available in effectively limitless amounts for human use. We could even exhaust global warming gasses via a space elevator "pipe" into space.

10:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dream on dicks.

10:38 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Sanctuary,

you're not afraid to argue for large-scale public works projects!

You were arguing a while back for a vast land reclamation project in the Firth of Thames, weren't you? I was thinking about your argument the other day, when I was reading the report of Tonga's Royal Commission on Land.

In submissions to the Commission, some Tongans argued that Fanga'uta Lagoon, which divides the east and west of the island of Tongatapu, be reclaimed. There's a serious shortage of land on Tongatapu, and both businesses and individual households already reclaim bits and pieces of swamp in ad hoc fashion.

Perhaps we should start by conquering Fanga'uta Lagoon and then move into space?

5:20 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Jono,

Jethro Tull aren't the only folks to pay tribute to Michael Collins. In his 1993 book How to Talk Andrew Johnston has a poem about the lonely astronaut:

The Third Man

The moon men came down in time for the news.
Four. A woman's hands busy at the bench

of pumpkin, spud, out of sight of a boy,
five, small. Occasional drawl of a moon man

above the white noise, of suds sucked down
a plughole, space laughing in the black gap

below Apollo Eleven. The boy
told his teacher he'd be Michael Collins,

the third one, orbiting, silent. Twice, because
she wasn't sure she'd heard what he was saying.

5:28 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

They cranked a television set into our standard two classroom, and we all watched the landing together.

As I recall, the screen was almost entirely black, with vague bits of fuzz moving around in it, and lots of incomprehensible NASA-speak going in the background (BZZZZZ ... incomprehensible gabble ... bbbzzzz ... one - small - step .... bbzzzz ... one - giant - leap ...BZZZZ). It wasn't exactly earth-shattering.

I do remember a whole lot of spiel about poor old Michael Collins at the time. In retrospect, he seems to have got off lighter than either of the two principals, Buzz with his depression and series of nervous breakdowns, and Neil with his (alleged) reclusiveness ...

8:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here we are in 2012, The Philistines have stole the ark of the covenaut ,God has allowed Saul to rule as King for 38 years and Samuel is looking ahead to 2016
in deep prayer to God
1 Samuel 16
over and out

4:37 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

No the poem is good Maps. I think you put a different version in your book?

But I think it is good to have those doubts. Dissatisfaction with one's own work is a good sign. I think that is good mix of schoolboy science and fantasy and poetry.

My disillusion with space travel came around 1969.

But I was very excited, we didn't even know if they could land on the moon or if they would sink. The place seemed so alien and strange. In my teenage years I spent a lot of it me looking through telescopes and reading about astronomy, physics, biology etc (I was in the Scientific book Club, by the way Martin Edmond is big on astronomy also); I also read "literary books" etc but while I have read many of Gerald Durrell's amusing "zoo" books I have never read anything by his brother.

But also dramatic was the first had a monkey in it! Then the Soviets put the first man into space (Gargarin) and we kids were very excited, also when we saw the first photographs of the dark side of the moon.

But the sense of it being so very alien and mysterious was for sure.

No, a bloody good poem Maps me old flog!

9:06 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Can you believe
they put a man on the moon
man on the moon


You're right, Scott, it does seem incredible.

8:53 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

That should, of course, be

"If you believe"


9:04 am  

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