Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon Muckraker (reprise)

My shadow questioning by Pants

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing, as you cannot fail to know unless you have actually moved there. The occasion draws to mind a time when I used to turn out a blog post a day. (Surprise! This blog really is all about me). I didn’t have any readers then and that made it much easier to blather on ad infinitum. Back in 2006 I wrote a piece about the revelation that no one had retained a copy of the high quality footage of this historic moment. I refer to the moon landing, obviously. Who would ever have thought you’d need something like that again eh? Well, to date, no dinted but undaunted film casing has been pulled from a dumpster and no fun-loving astro-nerd has surfaced sheepishly admitting that he was never a great practical joker or couldn't quite get the hang of eBay.

I might make a habit of republishing the best of my vast archive as some of it isn’t half bad. Today, I give you the old moon landing post. Its resonance transcends both time and, er, space in my admittedly biased view. Before that exquisite joy I offer a piece of rather harsh criticism I received from one Alla L via email a little after the fact. Alla L was not best pleased with my sloppy reporting it seems. I relay below every delectable skerrick of Alla's stinging critique,

1. "Sometime in the early afternoon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin... " -------- when you talk about such important event, the reference has to be 100% accurate: exact time, exact day (of july 1969).

2. "Last month The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the original, high quality tapes of the moon walk have been lost by NASA" ------- Because the article was written on September 2006, we can assume that "Sydney Morning Herald" was for August, but again what day of August?

3. If you do not know how to write serious text, do not write it all: your material do not look relaible and childish.’

Well, that’s me told then. I was wondering why the Pulitzer people hadn't called.

Make your own judgement for here it is, Moon Muckraker, originally published 4th September 2006.

On a chilly July morning in 1969 I sat shivering with the six hundred 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.*

* Please bear in mind he was still very much (almost) alive in 2006.