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Sunday, Aug 18, 2019

The Taste With Vir: One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and the launch of Chandrayaan 2 this week

Chandrayaan 2 Launch: In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi revisits a memorable summer holiday in London when he witnessed one of the defining moments of the century on television, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and how it led him to become an astronerd.

more-lifestyle Updated: Jul 23, 2019 15:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, India, July 22, 2019.
India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, India, July 22, 2019.(REUTERS)
         

I am not sure if we are as excited in India by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing as they are in the West. Certainly, we don’t seem to accord it the kind of saturation wall-to-wall media coverage that they have in America and Europe. Our concerns have more to do with the successful launch of Chandrayaan earlier this week. That seems more real and substantial to us than a moon landing that few of us recall.

Oddly enough, I remember the original Apollo 11 moon landing in detail. I stayed up till late at night to hear Neil Armstrong land on the moon and screw up the line that NASA’s backroom boys had prepared for him: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” (It should have been “that’s one small step for a man”.)

As far as I was concerned, it happened this way. We were in London during my summer vacation. We realized that by the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would reach the moon, my school term would have resumed and I would be sleeping in my bed in an Ajmer dormitory. I asked my father if perhaps we could work out some way of delaying my return to school. Couldn’t I pretend to have fallen ill?

My father saw the point. In 1969 there was no TV in India and I would miss one of the defining moments of the century – or perhaps, the millennium. So I had to stay back and watch. There was no doubt about that. But he would not lie.

He wrote to the Principal of my school saying that he believed I would gain more by watching the moon landing than I would by attending classes about it in the months to follow. The Principal agreed and granted me leave to stay on the condition that I wrote an article about it for the school paper.

We thought that these were gracious and acceptable terms. And so, right from the day that the giant Saturn V rocket, designed by the former Nazi scientist, Wernher Von Braun (but that is another story) took off from Cape Kennedy, I was glued to the TV set.

I watched fascinated as the lunar module detached itself from the command module and waited for Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to reach the moon. At that stage, we had many misconceptions and fears. Was the moon’s surface solid enough to walk on or would the astronauts be sucked into quicksand? Would we be able to see the lunar module as it landed and look off through our earthly telescopes? (No.) Would the astronauts see The Great Wall of China, the only man-mode structure on Earth that was said to be visible from space. (No. It is not visible from the moon.)

It is hard now to convey how exciting it was to see the first fuzzy TV pictures from the moon or the shot of electricity that ran though my body when the lunar module radioed back to earth “the eagle has landed.”

The moon landing became such a profound experience in my early life that for years afterwards, I became an astro-junkie, following the US space programme so obsessively that I was able to name all the American astronauts.

It took a while for the obsession to abate. When I was in my thirties, I heard a motivation coach talk about the impermanence of fame.

“Look at the moon landing”, he announced. “We all know the names of Armstrong and Aldrin. But not one person remembers the name of the third astronaut on that mission.”

I put my hand up.

“I do”, I said. “Michael Collins”

The motivational coach looked gobsmacked at first (I don’t think he remembered the name of the astronaut who had remained in the Command Module himself) and then became angry with me for destroying his well-rehearsed patter.

But then, what do you expect when you have an astronerd in the audience?

Gradually, as the moon missions took on a certain repetitive quality, my interest began to abate. Strangely, I found all science fiction and space movies boring but I enjoyed vaguely contemporary movies about the space program such as Capricorn One, a film with Elliott Gould, released in the late 1970s, which advanced the interesting thesis that a moon landing could easily be faked.

After a launch goes wrong in the movie, NASA recreates a moon landing in a studio and pretends that everything has gone as planned.

I enjoyed the movie but didn’t realize it would be the trigger for millions of conspiracy theories about the real Apollo 11 landing. All kinds of bogus pseudo-scientific arguments were used by nutcases to argue that the landing was a hoax, recreated in a studio. This nonsense got a new lease of life after there was a jokey reference to it on the TV show Friends and even now, these exists a formidable the-moon-landing-was-fake industry.

In the Gulf I once heard a new spin on the moon landing. One of the astronauts, I was told, had converted to Islam after returning from the moon.

Really? And why was that?

Well, because when he was on the moon’s surface, they said, he kept hearing a soothing but repetitive sound. It was only years later, when he visited the Middle East that he recognized the sound. It was “Allah O Akbar.” That was when he realized that Islam was the only true religion.

I tried to be polite. And who was this astronaut?

“A Mr. Aldrin,” I was informed.

Of course it was nonsense. Buzz Aldrin had heard no such sound and had never converted. But for a time in the 1980s, the story had so much Arab credibility that you heard it all over the region.

Then, a few years ago. I actually met Buzz Aldrin. Sonu Shivdasani who runs the upmarket Soneva resorts in the Maldives and Thailand celebrated an anniversary for Soneva Fushi, the resort that turned the Maldives into a high-class tourist destination.

The party was packed out with well-known people: Nicole Scherzinger, Naomie Harris (Miss Moneypenny), Ben Fogle etc. but the only one I wanted to meet was Aldrin.

And I was in for a treat. All of Sonu’s hotels have powerful telescopes that look deep into the clear sky above the Indian ocean. Buzz sat by the telescope, showed us exactly where the Eagle had landed and talked about his adventures on the moon.

For the duration of this conversation, I became the little boy who sat transfixed, watching the original landing on TV in 1969.

Nobody bothers too much with planning new trips to the moon now and the focus of the space program has shifted from adventure to practicality. There would be no communication (or spy) satellites without the space program and so, while people are grateful to the engineers and astronauts who began the conquest of space, the sense of adventure has drained away. It’s all business now.

Even when Armstrong and Aldrin were preparing to land on the moon, the debates had begun. Was it wise to spend so much money on what was basically an adventure? What exactly would we gain by going to the moon?

I remember watching a TV show the night that Armstrong landed where David Frost moderated a debate between a pro-Moon mission and an anti-Moon mission guests.

After one anti-Apollo guy had finished, the British politician Quintin Hogg harrumphed that if this attitude had been around in the old days, then Christopher Columbus would never have set out to discover America. “And that would have been terrible”, Hogg concluded.

Sammy Davis Jr., the entertainer (and future Uncle Tom; this was during Sammy’s short-lived Black Power phase) took Hogg on. Would it have been so terrible if America had never been discovered? “You would have a hard time convincing a lot of American Indians and black people of that, Sir.”

The debate was fought on a bogus issue, of course. Columbus did not go out on an adventure and discover America. He went on a commercial mission to find a new route to India and landed up in America by mistake.

But that debate has stayed with me and I often wonder if taxpayers should continue to fund space adventures. There is talk now of a manned mission to Mars. That would cost in excess of $100 billion.

Is it worth it? Are we better off because of the moon landings? Shouldn’t we fix things on Earth first before we reach for the stars?

I don’t know. There are strong arguments on both sides. Ultimately, I guess it comes down to what your priorities are.

But yes, there is no escaping the thrill of space adventure. These days they keep replaying footage of the 1969 moon landing on TV again and again.

And each time I see it, my spirit soars. Because giant steps are what you take.

Walking on the moon.

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First Published: Jul 23, 2019 15:13 IST

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