Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died this week, aged 82. Of the 12 that walked on the moon only six remain. A future that we once plotted with certainty is fading.
Cernan was born in 1934, one of the murky years that sat between the Great Depression and World War II. Donald Duck first appeared on screen, the Three Stooges also, and the Night of the Long Knives took place.
Cernan’s career coincided with a time when audacious risk felt like an acceptable cost for supremacy. In all he spent just over 24 days in space and just over 24 hours walking on the moon.
It seems counter-intuitive to think of the Apollo programme as a vestige of antiquity – a sort of steam punk idea that turned out surprisingly well. I remember watching the film The Mouse on the Moon in the 1970s – a genial British movie made in 1963 about the British race to the moon. It required hefty suspension of disbelief, watching the tweed suited spacemen climbing into their rocket ship.
In a way, Apollo feels a little like that now. The foil wrapped lunar landers, the clumsy suits hand sewn, the on-board computer with the processing power of a cheap Casio watch. The time that has elapsed since renders it more Low Fi than Sci Fi.
Some time after Kennedy had given his famous “We choose the moon” speech, he visited Cape Canaveral. In keeping with his style he sparked up conversation with a cleaner who he encountered in one of the corridors. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, Mr President,” the cleaner replied.
The Apollo programme succeeded because of collaborative human effort and ingenuity. It succeeded despite the technology. In the vacuum of space on the surface of the moon there is a footprint for every person who assisted in getting Cernan, Aldrin, Armstrong and nine others there.
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech, often referenced in this blog, is another manifestation or cry for this principle – that on this ‘mote of dust in a sunbeam’ as Sagan describes the world, it is our connected industry and ideals that should motivate us rather than the ill-founded and infantile disputes that have characterised our past. As we look to the US this year it’s worth remembering that human achievement is at its best when we act in concert. This is the social age. It’s time to celebrate the value and potential of that, even when vain and transient leaders might seek to use it to broadcast, bluster and buttress their lack of substance. Equally importantly, social media isn’t real world or real moon. Getting off our sofas is the way to get things done.