Neil and Buzz and me


A black and white television set, a seven year-old and a piece of wonder.  That was my memory.  July 20, 1969 and the fuzzy, difficult to see image that was being beamed from the surface of the moon showed movement.  A white mass with a goldfish bowl head was lumbering down a ladder and in a blizzard.  But I knew what I was watching.  I had devoured every television programme leading up to this event; I knew what every abbreviation meant; and I knew who this American in the space suit was—Neil Armstrong.  I heard his words as he stepped onto the moon and the world changed.  We were no longer Earthbound.  We were explorers again, cocking our nose at the safe and the ordinary, and stretching out into the darkness.

What did not occur to me as a seven year-old was just how brave these men were.  What they were doing while wondrous, seemed in some ways ordinary—what you did if you were an American.  Seven year-olds know nothing else and even the extraordinary can become commonplace.  My grandmother, who was ill at the time and staying with us, was dismissive of the whole venture in the way that only the old can be.  “All that way for a bit of dirt,” she sneered.  And, indeed when it came time for the broadcast of the most momentous moment in television history, she said she wanted to watch the other channel.  Now, I don’t even remember if there was anything else on—what could you schedule against that?—but I took this as a personal affront and had a breakdown.  Not for me you understand, but Neil and Buzz were being dissed and I couldn’t allow that.  My tears of tiredness and frustration flowed and soothed the old woman’s heart, while my elder brother intervened to reset the situation.  We all watched the landing in the early hours of the morning, including my granny, who held my hand as the footprints were made.

What brought all this back, was a conversation.  I was being asked: why medicine, why science, why research?  What had set me off on this track?  I thought of inspiring teachers who had shone new light on old subjects and made me want to learn more; I remembered books I had read that opened doors and invited me across unfamiliar thresholds; and I even recalled the smell of the orthopaedic ward when I visited my brother in hospital for the first time and the intriguing strangeness of it all. But none of these were the kindling that lit the fire.

Before Apollo, I can remember nothing about wanting to work in science; after it, I can remember nothing else.  I watched everything television of the 1970s had to offer in the way of science documentaries,  I covetted encyclopaedias of science in the library and I desperately wanted a chemistry set.  Quite why medicine came into the frame is a little less clear.  Not being naturally numerate I think I found myself more at home in the life sciences and of course medicine also had a certain glamour.  My desire to be a scientist fitted neatly with any medical aspirations as I convinced myself I would be a medical researcher and, if their was a God in heaven, I might get a job at NASA—they must surely need doctors cum scientists.  I even wrote to NASA as a nine year-old to enquire about my job prospects and, to their eternal credit, they wrote back.  I was advised to work hard at all my subjects at school and go to college and I was furnished with a set of photographs and plans of Skylab.  Now, that was public engagement in action.

However, manned spaceflight is not without its critics.  The Apollo programme cost the United States 25 billion dollars, which in 2014 terms would be close to 160 billion.  Even if we accept that it was a cold war race against the Soviets, think of the opportunity costs involved—just what could they have done with that money instead?  Built thousands of state of the art hospitals, conquered hunger, cured cancer?  Or they could have done what they did—built a dream.

NASA’s audience that night in July 1969 was truly global, but I rather suspect they had me in mind.  I think they knew that a seven year-old watching, squeezing his grandmother’s hand, would spend the rest of his life in science.  And I think they knew that because of me and the millions of others like me, it was probably money well spent.

© Allan Gaw 2014

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