her bonnet is the firmament / the universe – her shoe / the stars – the trinkets at her belt / the dimities – of blue

Had Mum and Dad up to stay and we all went to see In The Shadow of the Moon this afternoon.

About 5 weeks ago when we were travelling in Brazil together, I had been very ill while we were driving up the Bahian coast to Praia do Forte. I spend the whole day in bed in the hotel sleeping and by the evening felt better. We ventured out into the town – still long before season and rather quiet – and ended up on the beach which was completely lit by a huge full moon.

We sat in the silver luminosity and talked about how extraordinary the moon was. I was feeling lit up by the release from illness and the feel of the sand under my toes and also by the pleasure of talking to my parents, so far from home, on a beach in Brazil.
Dad has always been fascinated by the space programme. He was in the Air Force and then worked with satellites in the 70s, even disappearing for weeks to Cape Canaveral to supervise the launch of a rocket. I guess my brother and I grew up with wall-charts of the planets, and badges from the various Apollo missions scattered across bedroom walls.

As we sat on the beach, I enjoyed listening to him talking at length about the various moon landings and missions. And we all pondered the extraordinary fact that a handful of people had actually walked on that thing up in the sky.

When I came back to the UK, one of the first things I noticed in Time Out was a documentary film about the moonlandings.

Of course, I never managed to get to see it, until today when Mum and Dad and I reconvened for the first time since Brazil.

It’s a wonderful film. Simple and focused as good documentaries should be. Interviewing a handful of the 16 men who have walked on the moon. Alone the 3 minute sequence of the rocket launchers flaring and roaring and the rocket moving in slow motion from its gantry to the score by Phillip Sheppard makes it worth a viewing.

I was surprised that only 9 people had walked on the moon and all of the American. Some how I thought loads had gone and the Russians must have visited a few times. But no, only nine.

Neil Armstrong, famously reclusive, was conspicuously absent, though he was clearly the focus of the film’s narrative.

It follows a simple arc of ‘there’ and ‘back’ for Apollo 11 (the one that landed first in 1969), slotting in reminiscences of the other five missions in between. And it’s that first historic mission that remains so breathtaking.

There were several things that struck me. Firstly the real miraculous nature of that project. That so many ‘daisy-chains’ of complex procedures all proceeded without hitch was extraordinary. Especially when you see the clonking tape-run computers that NASA used in the late Sixties. Even when I was a teenager in the 80s computers seemed useless. How did they manage 20 years earlier to calculate these complicated orbital rendez-vous and 8-rocket gimbling? Michael Collins, the one who didn’t land on the moon but stayed with the Command Module, said himself that the whole chain of events felt like they were magically propelled.

Also I was struck by how the whole Space Race was unique to its time. Not only the Cold War but also the period where citizens could listen to a President declare in 1961 that America would send men to the Moon and back by the end of the decade, and not smell spin or propaganda. Instead the whole world (bar the USSR of course) actually embraced the project with all its grand talk of Mankind and discovery and great leaps.

It was a unbelievable achievement. And I can’t really think of a similar achievement the current world would embrace like that. I don’t think anyone would get so excited about a landing on Mars, for example.
It also amazed me that only two dozen humans beings have ever seen, with their own eyes, the Earth in its entirety . We’re so saturated with images of that ‘earthrise‘, but the actual experience of seeing it seems to have a mindchanging power.

All the lunar astronauts seemed to move beyond science into something else. They were all doubtless scientists and pilots to begin with but all came back changed. One found Jesus. Many were converted into ardent environmentalists (Collins again, repeatedly commented on how fragile the planet seemed.) One of them talked about the journey home being one 3-day spiritual ecstasy, a profound knowing that the molecules in his body were the same as those in the stars. Alan Bean, one of the most engaging of the astronauts, talked about how he never complains about the weather after walking on the moon, he’s just happy we have weather. Neither does he complain about too many people, he just remembers the dead, silent desert of the moon and rejoices in all the life on Earth.

Walking back through the crush in Piccadilly Circus with Mum and Dad after the film, with a crystal iceblue dusk sky and thousands of people streaming in and out of Tubes and shops and crossings, it did feel amazing. And the moon was just a sliver.


  1. Rick

    December 13, 2007 at 2:44 am

    Reading this essay brought back a flood of memories for me.
    Back in 1969, when I was just a wee little Queen, my
    parents FORCED me to sit in front of the TV to watch the
    moon landing as it happened live. “Ugh, how boring” I
    thought at the time. Now, nearly 30 years later. I treasure
    that strange moment that I shared with my parents, and I’m
    grateful that they forced me to sit and watch.
    Alistair, it sounds like you have a wonderful relationship
    with your parents, how lucky you are!

  2. Duane from Indiana

    December 13, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Good essay. I watched the moon landing outdoors on a big screen at Disney Land. At age 15 the event was amazing to me, though I think I was more amazed by the big screen.

    Whenever the subject of the moon comes up, my family always brings up our Mother’s cousin Nellie’s account of event. Nellie was a caregiver of elderly ladies in her home, and quite the eccentric. A few days after the event, my Father asked Nellie if she had watched the landing on TV. Nellie replied “Oh, no Fred! We all watched it outside.” With great effort she assisted all the residents to lawn chair seating to witness the historic event first hand. Nellie said they were able to see the rocket touch down. No doubt they did. Nellie was wonderful in that way.

  3. Ben Wood

    December 14, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Dear Alistair,

    Although this a very way off topic I just wanted to ask you
    a few questions. I’ve recently become very interested in
    Buddhism after being deeply dissatisfied with the
    religion of childhood. After a long search, I have come
    to feel that Buddhism may offer for the serenity I’ve been
    seeking. One Buddhist concept I’ve found very difficult to
    understand and to believe in however is the notion of
    rebirth. To some extent I have a very scientific mindset and I can’t
    get away from my doubt. I just wondered what role does the
    idea of rebirth play in your Buddhist spirituality? Do you
    think that is essential to take a definite “yes” position
    on rebirth to be a “good” Buddhist?

    By the way, really enjoying the blog,



  4. neil mcintyre

    March 1, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    hi alistair,

    regarding the moon landings i am goint o a couple of talks this year by buzz aldrin and gus grissom in leeds and i can’t wait if in it remarkable that these men went to and walked on the surface of the moon with as much technology that we have in a modern day calculator! i just blows my mind

    fantastic blog by the way

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