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Lunar standing

The heroes of space travel were cosmic bores.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • Sleeping satellite

This month must be a painful one for aficionados of space travel. It is now 30 years since man last set foot on the moon. 14 December 1972, the day Eugene Cernan became the last human being to grace its surface, effectively signalled the end of the space race – a race that brought us not colonies on Mars, but non-stick frying pans and rusty old Russian space-stations.

Many theories have been proffered for this ignoble closure. The adventure was too expensive (at one point NASA consumed three percent of the US federal budget); it was a function of Cold War rivalry and thus irrelevant today; or, as the lunatics will have it, it was a hoax in the first place and thus cannot possibly be repeated.

My own theory is that the public got fed up of it all because the astronauts that came back were so dull. Far from emerging as heroic role-models, they turned out to be cosmic bores. Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 fame now enjoys the status of being the world’s best-known hermit. After returning to Earth, he went to live on a farm in Ohio. Elsewhere, Charlie Duke from Apollo 16 discovered Jesus, while Alan Bean from Apollo 12 became a painter. The list goes on.

Many expected astronauts to be as cool as pilots, like Chuck Yeager, except even more dashing and daring. That they weren’t, is really not their fault. Unlike pilots, astronauts are merely trained scientists: nerds by nature. That the grinning Buzz Aldrin, the Peter Stringfellow of space travel, is considered their most colourful character, is an indictment itself. Mind you, Aldrin must be congratulated for his handiwork in September 2002, when he greeted a filmmaker who contends that the lunar landings were faked, by punching him.

Only one individual really stands out. Apollo 12’s Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad, who became the third man to set foot on the moon in November 1969, is worthy of our devotion. Unlikely his peers, Conrad was outspoken, funny, daring, a smart dresser and a lover of fast cars. During preparation for his mission, he accosted the commanding general to protest loudly about the number of enemas he was being subjected to. In one psychological test, when asked what he could see on a blank sheet of paper, he replied – after moments of apparently serious consideration – ‘it’s upside down’.

So salty was Conrad’s language that the NASA Public Affairs people were terrified as to what expletives he would emit upon touching down. In the event, he declared: ‘Whoopee! That may have been one small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me!’

Pete Conrad later found fame endorsing American Express on TV in the 1970s – ‘Do you know me?’, he would say to the cameras, ‘I walked on the moon!’ – before sadly meeting his maker in June 1999. It was a fitting end of sorts. He was killed while driving his Harley Davidson – at the age of 69.

If ever we return to the heavens, we’ll need a man of his calibre.

  • Man first

Realistically, it’s not going to happen. The cost alone is prohibitive. ‘How many schools and hospitals could this money buy?’, we would be asked today. In a way, it is fortunate. The last thing we need are more pictures of planet Earth looking small.

When Bill Anders of Apollo 8 took photographs of the Earth from space, little did he suspect how they would be appropriated by utopians and environmentalists. Anders’ images became used by Earth First! and Whole Earth environmental movements – the intended message being: ‘look at our tiny and fragile planet. How insignificant is humanity!’ That fact that man got to the position to take those photographs in the first place through his competitiveness, cunning and unique genius always seems to elude these people.

  • Real threats

Londoners visiting rail stations, shopping centres or bars in the forthcoming week are being urged to be vigilant, because of threats not just from al-Qaeda, but by the re-emergent Real IRA.

Since 9/11, the British have rather forgotten about the threat of Irish republican terrorism. This is not just circumstantial. IRA terrorism, by comparison to al-Qaeda’s deeds and alleged capabilities, seems prosaic. The IRA’s formula was conventional: put a bomb in the street, give a warning, the police would make an evacuation, and the bomb would go off. On occasions, attacks have been audacious – consider the Brighton bombing of 1984 or the attempt to kill the Cabinet by firing rockets at them in 1991 – and needless to say, had murderous consequences on many other occasions. Yet, compared to flying planes into buildings or (supposed) attempts to release anthrax, smallpox or poison gas, they seem run-of-the-mill.

Most of all, while al-Qaeda glory in killing as many civilians as possible, the IRA will at least acknowledge that the killing of innocents in large-scale attacks is ‘regrettable’. This difference tells us something about the conflict in Ireland.

Since 11 September, we are told that Christians in Europe also have their religious wars too, so there’s no need for us to be so smug about the Middle East. Yet paramilitaries in Ireland hardly even go to church, let alone read the Bible. Suicide missions to achieve the status of martyr are unheard of (the hunger strikes of 1981 come closest). In Ulster, it is the clergy who – rather than being the most vocal warmongers – are the ones always calling for peace and dialogue. Ian Paisley may be no friend of the Roman church, but were he from the Holy Land, he would be killing rather than just shouting.

This is not to say there are not extremists on both sides who are fired up by Catholicism or Protestantism, but for the most part these are short-hand tribal names.

Anyhow, please don’t worry about bombs this Christmas. Much more important to be vigilant for drug-rapists and paedophiles.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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