There’s a scene in the film Contact where Jodie Foster is hurtling through wormholes on her way to standing on the shore of another world courtesy of some extra-terrestrial whizzbangery, and she’s talking into a microphone to record what she sees for the folks back home.
“They should have sent a poet.”
A little over 43 years ago we actually did send a poet to another world. On July 20, 1969, an American called Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on the moon.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Whether he fluffed his line and missed out the “a” before “man” or whether the word got lost in the radio interference, it doesn’t really matter. The sentence doesn’t really make sense (without the missing article then “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing), but at the same time it makes perfect sense.
What he did was distill the greatest moment in human history down to a single step. When he was literally standing in the heavens, he grounded the achievement. He didn’t kick in the door to the future, he just stepped through it; the extraordinary made ordinary. With perhaps a nod to Lao Tzu, he acknowledged the many steps that culminate in a great journey, and he also looked ahead and gave inspiration to those who followed.
In truth, we haven’t leaped far. Only 11 men have followed in Armstrong’s footsteps and walked on the moon. It’s remarkable that before I was born men travelled to the moon using computers that are only a fraction as powerful as the one in my mobile phone. Yet we don’t do these things any more. The future has stalled. I had a Saturn V model at the side of my bed when I was a boy but moon bases remain a dream.
One thing is certain though. If mankind is to survive, it will have to leave our blue marble behind in the darkness of interplanetary space. At some point in the distant future, this world will become uninhabitable. Aeons from now when our civilisation has settled on other worlds, Armstrong’s name may be lost to our descendents in the same way we don’t know who first walked beyond the horizon.
For now though, we remember him as being the first of us who made another world his home.