by Joe Vaz

Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon…

From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

THOSE WERE THE IMMORTAL words that Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden used to say to Alice (played by the lovely Audrey Meadows) whenever he got mad at her in The Honeymooners, but leave it to the twisted brain of Matt Groening and his team of writers to completely turn this phrase on its head in episode two of Futurama (The Series Has Landed).

In the episode, Bender, Leela, Fry and co. are touring Luna Park, a Disney-esque theme park on the moon, which celebrates man’s habitation of our sole satellite. In one scene, an animatronic Jackie Gleason puts his arm around his wife and wistfully looks up to the stars. “One of these days Alice,” he ponders as he points to the moon, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon.”

I find this scene so poignant, as it’s the kind of thing that I am sure we do every day when looking back through history via archaeological finds. Within the Futurama universe, what was once an abusive one-liner by a drunk (who, admittedly, was funny – though that probably had more to do with how women were viewed at the time) is misinterpreted over time into a call-to-arms for humanity’s race to the stars. A race to the stars that, 42 years after a man first landed on the moon, we are no closer to. In fact, we’ve taken one giant leap backwards.

When I was born, in the early 70’s, man was still travelling to the moon. In fact I was 4 months and 13 days old when the crew of Apollo 17 touched down on the lunar surface, and four days later, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last human beings to set foot there.

That was 39 years ago.

In 1972, manned space exploration was already slowing down, but there were other really exciting things happening. Pioneer 10 had been launched in March of that year, and became the first man-made object to traverse the asteroid belt, which it did a mere two weeks before I was born.

In ’73, the last of the Mariner probes was cruising to Venus and Mercury. But the biggie came in ’77, with the Voyager programme. That’s the one I remember the best. The golden record attached to both Voyagers, containing the sounds of nature, the music of Beethoven, Mozart and even Chuck Berry, along with 116 images of our planet’s animals, insects and plant life. In short, a blueprint of humanity as it was in 1977. Carl Sagan noted at the time: “… the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

It certainly did. In 1977 we were very hopeful of encountering, communicating with, and welcoming to our world intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Back in ’77, kids were having their brains melted by Star Wars and Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Martin Landau was still the commander of Moonbase Alpha in Space 1999, Doctor Who was time-travelling through the universe every week, and we kids all grew up looking up at the stars and dreaming of the day when we could board our first rocket to the moon.

In 2011 The Space Shuttle programme was retired. Today, that dream of travelling to the stars seems farther away than ever before. The mission to Mars has come up and disappeared so often that I’m certainly not holding my breath anymore. The most exciting thing I read recently was the news that the Chinese might be thinking of lassoing, as it were, an asteroid to our orbit, in order to mine it.

But where are our 2001:A Space Oddity style space stations? Where are our orbiting shipbuilding yards? Where are our weekend getaways to the moon?

Where are our dreams of galactic travel? Have we become so obsessed with fighting and killing one another that governments will spend trillions of dollars to fuel death and destruction, followed by trillions to bail-out unscrupulous corporations, while bemoaning a couple of hundred billion dollars spent over decades of space exploration? As @gregorthecat quipped on Twitter: “Total lifetime cost of space shuttle program was $196 billion. Seems like a pretty good deal, when AIG bailout alone cost $182 billion.”

Today we are still benefiting from the fruit of NASA labours in the 70’s, both Voyager spacecraft are still travelling, Voyager 1, the further of the two, is currently 118.6 AU away from us, and counting, travelling at a speed of about 3.5 AU per year. It takes light 32 hours to get to it and back. The Voyager spacecraft are officially the furthest man-made objects from the Earth, currently travelling through the Heliosheath – the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. Both spacecraft are still sending scientific information about their surroundings through the Deep Space Network (DSN). They have enough power to keep us posted for the next nine years or so, after that, “Voyager will become our silent ambassador to the stars,” as one scientist put it.

But what will follow?

If there is intelligent life out there will they ever find us? And if they do will we still be here, or will they be left with a lot of city-shaped rubble and impregnable documentation of our history or plastic disks. What will they make of us?

On summer nights I sit on my balcony looking up at the stars above Table Mountain and I still marvel at them. I still dream that one day we’ll get there (or they will get here). I know it will probably never happen, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming that “one of these days…bang, zoom, straight to the moon”.


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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

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One Response to “Bang! Zoom! Straight To The Moon”

  • It is pretty disappointing that none of the stuff of 70s science fiction seems to have materialized (except for the electronics, and the dystopian bits…). I suspect that the fizzling out of space travel has had a lot to do with the way government operates. People are quite happy to part with their money for entertaining gadgets, but when their government spends a trillion dollars there has to be a powerful force to convince electors to support the spending, and in our system the only force that seems to work is fear. Cold War fear fuelled the space race, anti-terrorism fear fuelled the vast spending on security, imaginary doomsday weapons fuelled the spending on Gulf War II, and the fear of the economy collapsing made (many) people accept giving wealthy & useless CEOs billions in public money. I guess the difference with the space race was that it was, at least partly, driven by wonder and imagination too.