Monday, September 04, 2006

Moon Muckraker

On a chilly July morning in 1969, I sat shivering with the six hundred or so other pupils of my Sydney girls' school on the floor of the gymnasium in front of an especially imported television. I believe the Maths teacher, a stick of a man who later married a girl in my class, was delegated to adjust the indoor aerial. Please don’t anyone worry about this as it was perfectly normal in the sixties (having to constantly adjust the TV aerial I mean).

Sometime in the early afternoon, sound encased in a crackle of static, the first live television pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon sprang from the box.
 
What we all thought was a space programme that would see us holidaying on Mars when we had exhausted the new experiences of our own world, had begun. Sadly, this was not to be. The only legacy of those few years and handful of ‘space missions’ where Americans bounced around in their Michelin- Man suits and collected rocks was about ten years of moon-landing inspired ‘if this why not thats’. An example might be ‘if they can land a man on the moon, why can’t they make the 7.56 from Upminster to Fenchurch Street run on time at least once a week?’, or ‘if they can land a man on the moon why can’t I get a decent cup of tea in Benidorm?’
 
I put up my hands as someone who is susceptible to conspiracy theories. It’s a natural by-product of having trust issues with the world, or universe as the case may be. It’s true that those pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin did seem oddly transparent, like they had been double-exposed in some way. Then there was the ‘was it or wasn’t it flapping’ with the flag thing. There is no atmosphere on the moon which is why I guess it never became the new Ibiza, but the American flag could clearly be seen flapping. I came to accept the NASA official explanation which is that the thrusters from the departing space craft caused the wind that made the flag flap. There is no escaping that those space vehicles looked impossibly flimsy then and even more so now.

Even so, I was disinclined to believe that the moon landing was a hoax for a multitude of reasons. Although it wasn’t until I saw the film The Dish five years ago, that I realised the pictures we saw were coming from the radio telescope in our very own city of Parkes in New South Wales, I did feel a great sense of retrospective pride. Also, it’s one of only three days I can remember at all about that school (the others being the day I arrived and the day I left).

The last month has brought disquieting news for moon walk believers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the original, high quality tapes of the moon walk have been lost by NASA. Presumably these show pictures of the astronauts bouncing around that don’t just look like very poor special effects. Panic buttons were triggered when an Australian scientist called John Sarkissian who had worked at Parkes for ten years, suddenly thought it might be nice to see if NASA could burn a DVD for him and phoned the Goddard Space Centre in Maryland. Someone had a bit of a poke around but couldn’t lay their hands on the tapes. Either NASA’s cataloguing system could do with a review, or something more than a little pants is going on here.

Today, thirty-seven years after the historic ‘moon landing’ scientists are celebrating because they have managed to successfully crash a space vehicle into the surface of the moon. This was not an emergency procedure after robots couldn’t get the landing gear down or a freak accident on a very delicate and highly risky mission. No, this was their actual goal.

‘We don’t think there’s much that can go wrong now. It’s going to crash and that’s what we want’, said Manuel Grande, a planet scientist (previous credits include stunt co-ordinator on Thelma and Louise). At the risk of overstating, is it that difficult to get a crash wrong? But why crash at all? Why not set the thing down in a little puff of moon dust like they used to do in the old days? Neil Armstrong is, after all still alive. Surely he would have been glad to assist. He could have done the whole landing by remote, couldn’t he?

We may all have to come to terms with the possibility that the 1969 ‘moon walk’ was as fake as Michael Jackson’s.

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