Shoot for the moon

Monday, 19 July 1999

As time has passed I've come to understand that the true value of Apollo wasn't the rocks, wasn't the data that we brought back. It was the worldwide sense of participation, of people everywhere recalling where they were at that moment, and how they shared in a human adventure that brought out the best in all of us.
- Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

IN RETROSPECT, it seems somewhat ironically incongruous. Westminister chimes signalled the hour while some 186000 miles away (we weren't doing the metric system yet), a voice crackled across the æther. The English Service of Radio South Africa had broken with tradition to allow a live broadcast to overrun its seven o'clock news bulletin.

I was seven years old. I was sitting in front of the single speaker of the radiogram (as my parents called it) listening to Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin boldly going where no man had gone before. And my mother reached across and tuned to Springbok Radio.

"But I was listening to that," I protested. "It's the moon landing." "Springbok Radio's news is better," she said. I sat sulking as a happy excited American-sounding person described yet another tropical paradise and tried to persuade us that all we needed to do to get there was to smoke Peter Stuyvesant, "the international passport to smoking pleasure."

Tomorrow, July 20, is the 30th anniversary of that conversation. I feel I should be smugly pointing out to my mother that Springbok Radio has gone the way of the dodo, and serves her right too. I won't because she might turn around and remind me that 26 years have passed since any human has been anywhere near the moon and let that be a lesson to me.

What the hell happened? One moment, we were standing on the threshold of the most glorious era in the history of humankind. Next moment, we had turned around and gone back to our pathetic parochial existences, closing the door firmly behind us.

Maybe John Kennedy was being a politician when he said of his dream to take humanity to the moon: "We do not attempt things because they are easy, but because they are hard, and in that way we achieve greatness." But those were good words. Thirty years ago, we sent our people toward the stars, and they looked down from there and could not see Jerusalem or Angola or Sri Lanka or East Timor or Tibet or all of those places where the idiots among us fight for ownership of slices of dirt as though, in the long run, this actually matters.

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Yes, in spite of all the lunatics in the world today, there's a growing number of us who believe that our destiny lies in the stars. There's now more computing power sitting on my desktop than the entire Apollo moon programme ever used, and when I'm not using it as a glorified typewriter, it is busy working. It connects to the Internet site of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the University of California-Berkeleley. It downloads a quarter megabyte chunk of radio waves gathered by the world's largest radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. And it scans it to look for signs of intelliegence from the stars.

I'm not the only lunatic doing this. There are 2106 of us in South Africa taking part in the SETI@home project placing us 27th out of the 223 countries participating. (Niger is the smallest with 2 participants.) All told, there are 851750 of us around the world who between us have already donated thirty years of computer time towards scanning the stars.

Is this the founding of a new religion? Probably. Our prophets are the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. Our benefactors include Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Join us at www.setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu, and make the last 30 years count.