‘There‘s a feeling ofcollapsed time.‘ James Burke told me. recalling his days as anchor to the BBC’s Moon Shot programmes. ‘Everything related to technology has accelerated in those twenty years.‘ Back in the Sixties things were moving pretty fast too. Barely had Alan Shepard dipped his Gemini spacecraft into space — a gesture that did a little to repair the American pride dented by Yuri Gagarin‘s coup for the Soviets the previous year— than Kennedy was making his famous pledge to the people. The United States. he proclaimmed ‘should commit itself to achieving the goal. before this decade is out. of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth again‘.
‘Where is the moon’
His reasoning was as simple as it was enigmatic: ‘we chose to go the moon not because it is easy. but because it is difficult.‘
At the time. Burke recalls the prevailing view was that the Space Race was merely part of the Super Powers‘ jostling for military superiority; later he was to hear a different story. ‘I did a long interview with a fellow who is now dead who was the chef de cabinet for John Kennedy. He told me Kennedy wanted to take the public mind off the Bay of Pigs disaster; Vice-president Johnson suggested the moon. Apparently Kennedy just about said ‘Where‘s the moon‘. It was political expediency. We saw it as a response to the Russians. in fact it was Kennedy covering his arse.‘
Whatever the motivation. Kennedy set America on a remarkable trail of technological innovation. And Johnson was right. it couldn‘t help but capture the imagination of the people. ‘At the beginning the TV coverage was conceived as a political activity; current affairs covered the initial moonshots and I was brought in as a sort of adjunct to handle the nuts and bolts. But gradually the sheer scale of the technological adventure took over and control passed to us.‘ Burke became the anchor man. ‘For the first time. large numbers ofthe general public saw science as something exciting and comprehensible. The great touchstone was the taxi driver. Within three or four years they were telling you about mid-course corrections. I don‘t think you had that in any other area with the public and science. before or since.‘
Burke. currently working on a new multi-part science documentary for US television. happily concedes the enormous boost Apollo brought to his own career. ‘It was an extraordinary piece of luck. I was in the right place at the right time. I was working away as a junior reporter on Tomorrow '3 World and might still be there — or indeed might have been sacked by now— if it wasn‘t for Apollo.’ Gradually. however the moon missions headed Burke‘s career in another direction.
Alan Shepard, the first American in space. and later one ofthe few men to walk on the moon. will this month inaugurate Edinburgh‘s International Science Festival.
As an exhibition opens to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the moon landings. Apollo anchorman for the BBC, James Burke talks to The List about the
significance ofthe project.
‘Arguments which were beginning to surface about the social ramifications of the expedition to the moon were becoming more powerful. I personally began to move away from the gizmo-orientated shop window idea of Tomorrow's World towards the Burke's Specials . They tried to bring an audience in to science not only by involving them in experiments but also by getting them to look at some of the issues involved‘ says Burke.
He himselfsingles out as his most lasting memories of the moonshots the experience ofstanding three miles from a launch of a Saturn Five and the first impossible-to-describe pictures from the surface of the moon. The Burke Specials led to (.‘onnections and The Day The Universe Changed and Burke found he had moved ‘from the hardware to the software ofscience.‘
Twenty years on the world. and science. has come to view the moon
missions differently. ‘Everybody at the time thought we would have a colony on the moon by now and that we‘d be on Mars by 1991. But then. in those days who‘d ever heared of the Ozone Layer . . . ‘
‘In those days.‘ he continues ‘we lived in such blithe ignorance ofthe damage we were doing to the planet. Yet to see the fragile earth from outer space. stuck there in a black hostile environment was a turning point.‘ While he admits little ofreal scientific value has come from the moon mission. he still defends them. When at dinner parties the debate gets round to whether it was a waste of money he says ‘that‘s an absurdly simplistic view. The money saved on not going to the moon would not have necessarily existed in any other form that was useable. Anyway you have to ask what your social priorities are. During the same period in America, women spent as much on lipstick as was spent on the space programme. Yes lipstick is important — it kept people in jobs. But did it keep 400,000 families. did it help to build the US technological machine so it was way ahead of everybody else for a decade? If it came to a choice I wouldn‘t spend the money on lipstick.‘
Burke‘s admiration for the astronauts involved. some ofwhom have remained friends. is obvious. ‘They are quite extraordinarily brave. balanced men who often have a remarkable sense of humour.‘ He remembers. too. with affection one incident during the Apollo 15 mission which wasn‘t being broadcast live. Dave Scott was walking on the moon when suddenly his oxygen warning ﬂag came up: ‘You know how the astronauts lope around in low gravity up there? Well Scott moved like a rattlesnake‘. When they met on the ground later Scott said ‘You don‘t fuck around when that happens.‘
So Little Time
Strangely. the significance of the journey to the moon seems to be difficult even for the the astronauts to sum up. There have been numerous tales ofpsychological problems or religious conversions for the men who have returned. but it seems the reality of the experience was essentially underwhelming. The commander oprollo 12 told Burke that going to the moon wasn‘t ‘as good as the simulation‘. Burke believes that ‘was an important statement to make. . . there were no second chances, everthing followed an exact schedule. there was so little time to look around.‘
The pace of space exploration may now have slowed. and Burke finds it hard to justify the cost of ‘man rating‘ the US Space Shuttle. but he remains convinced of its worth. ‘It
was an important step in history because we left the confines of the planet for the first time. There is no doubt that at the most conservative estimate there are billions of intelligent civilisations in the galaxy. No one doubts that. We‘ll go back into deep space when we can afford it. Undoubtedly we‘ll go to the stars.’
8 The List 24 March—6 April 1989