It’s 50 years since humans’ greatest ever achievement — have we really progressed since?

It’s 50 years since humans’ greatest ever achievement — have we really progressed since?
Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969. AP Photo/NASA

I WATCHED the greatest achievement in the history of humankind unfold on a flickering old black and white TV, I’ll have you know.

Well, I say ‘watched it’.

What I mean is I may have been facing in the right general direction, but the moon landings of July 20, 1969, simply passed me by, I’m afraid. I was probably tucking into a Farley’s rusk instead.

Full disclosure: I was a mere babe in arms aged five months and one day, when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous phrase ‘One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

(Armstrong later claimed he actually said the ‘a’ but it was lost in the background fuzz... but the great man may have just been sick of people telling him for the rest of his days: “You had ONE job to do, Armstrong!”)

Mathematicians among you will have worked out by now that I celebrated a significant birthday in the not too distant past, as this Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. What a day that must have been (the moon landing, not my birth!), what a time to be alive.

My point is, from that day in the summer of ’69 (apologies to Bryan Adams) to this day now, can we honestly say that humankind has accomplished anything as epic and jaw-dropping and, literally, out of this world, as the day we set foot on the moon?

I say not.

Sure, we have adapted our TVs from flickering black and white sets to screens the size of a space ship; and we have adapted our phones from talking devices into mini-do-all thingies; and we have almost reached the stage when AI robots can feed us Farley’s rusks instead of our mums...

But have we humans ever, EVER bettered July 20, 1969, in the 18,059 days since (thanks to my phone for working out that little sum).

No.

The mention of mobile phones is instructive here, since it’s often stated that there is more technology in a single one of those, than there was in the computer that powered the moon landings.

Which is both awesome, and terrifying — when you think of the welfare of the three men sat in that tin can 384,000km away in July, 1969.

As you might expect, the mobile phone-spaceship analogy is a handy soundbite for a barstool debate, but it falls down when the real nerds get involved.

They would argue that the comparisons are moot, and point out that the Apollo Guidance Computer which got man to the man and back was a pretty handy bit of science which — get this — could actually recover from crashes without any human intervention.

So, the moon landings didn’t even require an IT department, unlike us ‘super-advanced’ humans today...

But I’m straying from the point.

The moon landings marked the climax of decades of science, hard work, and billions of dollars, and some would argue that if America hadn’t strained every sinew to beat the Russians in the Space Race, the moon might still remain unconquered.

So, the planting of the American flag on the moon was the end of one journey — literally and metaphorically — but it was meant to be the start of something new, not the end.

If humans could walk on the moon, people wondered back in 1969 — that glowing orb that had been gazed upon with wonder by our ancestors since the beginning of time — then what on earth, or off it, could we achieve next?

With more money, science, ambition, co-operation between nations, and, yes, competition, too, we now had a whole new horizon to aim for. The world was at our feet.

But, incredibly — almost as incredible as the original moon landings, I would suggest — the progress stopped.

Sure, there have been many more space trips, and an International Space Station, and unmanned probes have been sent out to the far end of the universe.

And here on earth, we have invented and adapted many things to improve the quality of our lives — in the western world at least — to unheard of levels.

But... but... it’s not landing on the Moon, is it?

You could make a strong argument for the fact that we have spent the past 50 years making the world immeasurably better for large swathes of humanity, and immeasurably worse for the rest of humanity — and for the planet itself.

But when it comes to the next big thing, we have been found wanting. We have failed to live up to the Apollo 11 mission, failed to follow in their lunar dust-ridden footsteps.

Why can’t we get to Mars, for instance? A goal that remains all talk and no action?

It’s interesting to ponder 1969 as we prepare to enter 2019, as it also heralded another great scientific achievement: The first flight of the supersonic jet Concorde.

When it was scrapped for financial reasons in 2004, that TV petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson made some brilliant points. The decision to can it, he said, was one giant leap backwards for mankind.

In fact, he went further and argued that, for the first time in human history, we had taken a backward step.

We do live in an age of progress, but it all seems to be inward-looking — all diseases and DNA — or stuff that can make inventors and manufacturers a fortune — like robots and apps. Where is the next big wow coming from on the same level as the first moonwalk?

Whoever first makes it to Mars won’t make a pot of money, but they will certainly spend it! And all to inspire and thrill us humans on earth. What a goal!

A supplement with the Evening Echo at the start of this year, called Years Of The 9, looked back at various anniversaries falling in 2019.

For 1969, we spoke to a Corkman who sat his Leaving Cert that summer and recalled seeing the moon landings as an impressionable teenager, when “science fiction became science fact”.

Tony Jackson, who was living in Ballintemple, said: “I still have that interest in everything space and space travel, and am now a long serving committee member of Cork Astronomy Club.”

Just one of many across the planet who was inspired. What a shame that nothing in my own lifetime of nearly 50 years comes close to that feeling of euphoria.

The further back in time that moon landings appear in the rear mirror of human civilisation, the more it looks like we have reached a peak in progress.

Hopefully the next 50 years will prove me wrong — and that I’m around to see it!

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