The symbolism was probably not intended, just another consequence, this one fortunate, of the pandemic.
The centre of Glasgow has been mocked up to look like Manhattan in 1969, carrying bunting and Americana, vintage Cadillacs and Buicks in the streets with signs welcoming back home the Apollo 11 astronauts who first walked on the Moon – filming the latest Indiana Jones movie in the same week that, 57 years ago, Neil Armstrong actually did take that small step and mankind’s giant leap.
So far, the film is untitled – well, at least for outsiders – and 79-year-old Harrison Ford, reprising the role he first played 40 years ago, hasn’t yet appeared in George Square. Perhaps it should be called Indiana Jones and the Retirement Plan? All of this malarkey after that arch-publicity hound Richard Branson was filmed last week floating in his rocket, not breaching the final frontier, only cartwheeling on the edge of space.
There are those, still, who believe that the original Moon landing was a confection put together in a Hollywood studio directed by the CIA, or Stanley Kubrick, and was Cold War propaganda. I mean, how come a flag flutters on the Moon when there’s no gravity?
One of those is the conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, Bart Sibrel. He has made two documentaries, or perhaps rockumentary is a better description, trying to prove that it was all a lasting hoax: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon in 2001, and Astronauts Gone Wild, two years later.
Sandwiched between these two epics was his confrontation with the second man to tramp the moon dust, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. In September 2002, when Buzz was then 72, Sibrel confronted him as he was about to deliver a talk in Beverly Hills and hectored him that the Moon landing was faked and that the closest he got to the Moon and stars was tramping the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
All right, that last bit was creative licence, but he did shove a bible in Aldrin’s face a couple of times and asked him to swear the truth on it. When he didn’t Sibrel called him “a coward, a liar and a thief” which is when Buzz introduced Sibrel to his own galaxy of stars, a straight right-hander to the jaw which, while not a block-knocker, was a pretty meaty jab for a pensioner.
THERE was at least a germ of truth in Sibrel’s thesis. The Apollo programme, a manned US spaceflight, was not some grand human endeavour to explore the universe but a military response to the Soviet lead in space technology.
In October 1957, the Russian satellite Sputnik 1 was sent into orbit, the first one waking the US military and politicians from complacency. A month later, Laika, a dog, was the first living creature in Sputnik 2 to be launched into Earth orbit. She died, of course.
The next blow to America’s notional technological hegemony came on the morning of April 12, 1961 when Vostok 1 blasted off from the Baikonur space centre with Yuri Gagarin aboard. The cosmodrome was, and is, in a desert steppe in Kazakhstan, leased then to the USSR. The location was chosen for its remoteness, lack of population and, presumably, to keep it away from the prying eyes of the CIA.
Gagarin was the first human in space. He was remarkably calm and matter of fact about it. In the hour leading up to launch he asked for some music to be piped into the module and half an hour before countdown his resting pulse was just 64 beats a minute.
The flight was short, one orbit of the Earth and just a few minutes less than two hours in duration. Vostok 1 was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards but it worked perfectly. After re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, 7km above ground, the hatch automatically opened, and two seconds later Gagarin pulled the lever on his ejector seat then flew out into the atmosphere and triggered his own parachute. His drift to the ground took 10 minutes.
A woman farmer and her daughter watched in trepidation as a figure in a bright orange suit and large white helmet hit the dirt, rolled over and then dragged a parachute towards them. Gagarin later recalled: “When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’” Talk about cool.
Tuned to the moon
WHATEVER else it did it injected a massive spurt into the US space programme, and the creation of Apollo and a pledge to reach the Moon within the decade. The US had already emulated the USSR, Alan Shepherd had become the first American in space, but the new president, John F Kennedy, wanted a resounding USA first.
It was at the height of the Cold War. The US-backed and humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion to remove Fidel Castro’s regime has taken place less than six months before. It was September 1962 and Kennedy would face, and face down, just a month later the greatest challenge of his short presidency with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Nikita Khruschev’s regime began to install nukes on the island.
In a speech before 40,000 at a university campus in Texas – “We choose to go to the Moon” – and amid the flowery rhetoric summoning a new pioneering spirit and “setting sail on a new sea”, Kennedy warned: “For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if we occupy a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theatre of war.”
We know now that JFK wasn’t really invested in the space programme and putting a man on the Moon, just in beating the Soviets to it. Meetings have him saying: “I’m not that interested in space.” It was his vice-president, and the man who succeeded him, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who convinced him. LBJ had been a space cadet since 1958 when he said: “Control of space is control of the world.” Grand ambitions, or totalitarianism, take your pick.
IT’S something of a miracle that the Apollo actually returned. Its avionics were simpler than an iPhone or your kitchen microwave, and Buzz Aldrin’s felt-tipped pen, stuck in a failed whatsit, sorted a circuit flaw. The US flag that Armstrong planted, which caused so much contumely subsequently, had a metal rod through it so it would “flutter”. It perished in the blast of their return take-off.
Many people, including the president Richard Nixon, who had succeeded the enthusiastic LBJ, harboured doubts the crew would return. In the event that they didn’t he had prepared a broadcast to the world which began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.”
Great lines, written by William Safire, so it’s almost a shame they were never used. David Bowie wasn’t too hopeful about the mission either. Nine days before launch he had put out Space Oddity about Major Tom’s misfortune.
The Apollo 11 mission wasn’t a peace trip – although the crew picked up some dust, Moon rocks and geological geegaws. It was monumental play in the ratcheting war between US capitalism and Russian communism.
It fell to the 40th US president, Ronald Reagan, to defeat the USSR by beggaring it in the arms race with the commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, something that could have come from Philip K Dick novel or MAD Magazine, where weapons in space would shoot down Russian ICBMs. It didn’t happen. It was the illusion that mattered.
At a much more infantile level, in the risible square-go between two billionaires, Branson beat his rival Jeff Bezos to weightlessness, and few cared.
Down on Earth, in the Merchant City and its airts, my uninformed guess is that the baddies in the Indiana Jones movie now filming will be devious and heartless KGB agents, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge playing a double one, although if she gets it on with the hero I’ll be closing my eyes.