Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on the anniversary of the Moon landing

I was a primary school space nut. At the age of eight, growing up in a small, remote and poor country town, I knew all about multi-stage rockets, Werner von Braun, space stations and weightlessness. All through the sixties I ached for space travel to become an everyday reality. I wrote a story for my high school magazine in second form (year 8 these days) about an intrepid pair of space-tug pilots delivering some special cargo across the inky void. Finally in nineteen sixty-nine I sat with some of my fellow year 12 students in one of our science teachers' living room watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the Moon and mangle his famous quote. And then what?

That was the problem. Having strained engineering to the maximum and somehow got hundreds of thousands of people to co-operate nearly flawlessly to race against the Russians, the United States won. But it was a strangely empty victory. There were more flights to the Moon, but they were a curiously dull spectacle. Nearly everyone lost interest in the endevour. The money ran out, and that was that. Space travel was and is incredibly difficult and expensive and there's nowhere to go — at least nowhere close by with anything interesting to do or which promises a quick return on the investment. There are no cool aliens to hang out with on Mars or Venus, no strange cities under the clouds.

Before the Moon landings we — or at least I — imagined somehow there would be a breakthrough and we'd be going to the Moon for holidays by the year 2000. But most of all, I was looking for something beyond that — something ineffable but powerful — a transfiguration, an escape from our dull and routine existence, a chance to be a hero and something to give life a stronger, more real dimension. I wanted to escape from my life. And I think this was true for a lot of people. The Moon landing had become some sort of spiritual goal for many of us materialists, but its banal, dusty rock pile reality brought us strangely undone.

It was a time of many broken dreams but also of new ones. The Vietnam war was staggering on towards the increasingly obvious defeat of the Americans in this holy war — because it was a religious crusade at bottom, even if the Vietnamese didn't see it that way. Again I'd bought into this as a teenager. I can remember arguing with great conviction (against what I remember as the leader of the Victorian branch of the Communist party. He addressed us at some sort of school function at Caulfield Grammar where I was boarding for a couple of years. What the hell was he doing there? Who knows and who would now remember?) that the North Vietnamese were the evil aggressors and had to be stopped. Two years later I was on the anti-war side.

There was no great road to Damascus revelation for me. I don't know how it was for other people caught up in that tumultuous time. I just stopped believing in what I now call Heroic Materialism. It retreated for me into an historic memory. As the time came for me to step of the educational conveyor belt, I realised in an inchoate, almost subconscious way (my thinking was not clear enough for me to articulate my thoughts) that Heroic Materialism was a totalitarian vision. It required the subjugation of the will of the masses to further the dreams of a fortunate few. My idle ambitions of being an artist-engineer or architect would require me to buy into a system of social relationships which I detested. Not only that, but it was quickly obvious that only the exceptionally ruthless and energetic could rise to positions of power in such a system, and that the merely talented would be spear carriers. I didn't want to be the lacky of persons I despised, nor did I want to design ugly commercial buildings for a civilisation I suddenly found myself at odds with. I dropped out of my architecture degree at the end of the first year.

What followed was what seemed to be a very personal and private struggle to find a meaningful way forward for myself. My girlfriend and I set off on a motorbike from the city. For the next few years I didn't watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers. I worked different hard physical jobs and tried to figure out what life was really all about. How could what I do be meaningful and beautiful on a small, personal scale yet fitting into a larger, more seemly whole? As you can see, my ambitions were still grand underneath it all.

Of course what I thought of as my personal quest was really something I shared with many others at the same time. We met each other and we tried to build our New Jerusalems. We never reached what we wanted, but our efforts gave us a depth of understanding and an independence of vision. Now we are the old ones of the culture, the ones who know the subtleties and wrinkles of existence.

Just as only a small number of people could ever be truly free and powerful in a culture of Heroic Materialism, only a relatively small number of us have taken the outsiders path to try and build a new culture.

The old culture still stumbles on, with its spokesmen still talking the talk with increasingly less impact and conviction. The Americans are once more planning a Moon landing, but the budget for such an enterprise seems to be shrinking by the day. The Chinese are working hard on their space program and could still manage to pull it off if the decayed Communist Party can hold onto power and keep their industrial system spinning on for another ten or fifteen years. But I am not confident that either of them can ultimately manage it.

I grieve for the past glories of Heroic Materialism even as I despise the social arrangements it produced and which it depended on. I'm forever bifurcated by this split in loyalties. One of my favourite DVDs is a three part series put out by the BBC called "Space Race", about the rivalry between Werner von Braun and his unknown counterpart in the Soviet Union, the amazing Sergei Korolev. How much of what was achieved in space depended of the visions of these two people! And yet at what terrible human cost: more lives were lost using slave labour building the V-2 rocket, which was von Braun's first great achievement, than were lost when it struck its targets in the dying days of World War 2.

And so after forty years I can look back and say that the Moon landing was a crucial event in my life, a pivot on which my existence turned and took me down new paths. I'm still hopefully traveling. I haven't arrived yet.

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