The opera buffa Il mondo della luna was first performed on August 13rd, 1777 in Hungary. Written by Joseph Haydn (libretto by Carlo Goldini), it tells the story of an astronomer who tricks a rich aristocrat into marrying off his daughters. The astronomer does so by convincing the aristocrat he has been transported to the moon, and puts on a bogus marriage ceremony featuring the ‘Emperor of the Moon’ and the rest of his court (played by himself and the aristocrat’s daughters). Caught up in the spectacle, the aristocrat gives his blessing to the supposed moon wedding, when in reality he had consented to marrying off his daughters and releasing their dowry. You can read the full synopsis of the opera here and listen to the overture here. What I took away from Il mondo della luna is both the characterization of the moon as a world like our own, and how a dream of flying to the moon became a realty some 200 years later.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed congress, announcing his intention to push the US to land a man on the moon. Feeling the pressure of the Space Race that the USSR was decidedly ahead in, Kennedy emphasized that this would be a demonstration of the United States’ capabilities as a nation, and would require the support of those beyond the government and NASA. The successful progression of the Apollo missions ensured the Apollo 11 flight would capture the attention of the entire world.
On July 20th, 1969, an estimated 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface, with that now famous statement, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
As a millennial (and a Canadian), the Apollo 11 mission has been nothing more than a piece of history (or more commonly, a piece of trivia) learned about through textbooks and documentaries. Those I’ve engaged with about their experiences watching the live broadcast talk about much more than the actual content of the broadcast – distinct memories of where they were, who they were with, and what they were feeling. I’m almost jealous of having missed out on the experience.
Last year I was able to watch SpaceX launch one of their unmanned Falcon 9 rockets from the Kennedy Space Center, in person. Feeling the ground shake as the thrusters ignited, hearing the sonic boom, watching the exhaust light up the night sky – it was an experience I will never forget. Yet, around me in the restaurant that my family and I were in, many people never so much as glanced out the huge veranda windows, more focused on their clam chowder or cell phones than the 500,000kg rocket lighting up the horizon.
Has the novelty of space travel worn off? Granted, unmanned rockets aren’t nearly as exciting (nor the stakes as high) as actual manned flights, but given the overwhelming response to the death of Oppy the mars rover, connecting to machines isn’t the issue. In 1973 (one year after Apollo 17, the last mission in the series), polling services indicated that 59% of those surveyed were in favour of cutting funding for space programs – that is to say, ‘do less with space’ in order to reduce government spending as a whole. By this time, Cold War tensions were easing and the Space Race had effectively ended.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, we should be reminded of the achievement of bringing the collective dream of millions of people to reality. 20% of the world’s population held their breath as Neil Armstrong relayed his ever famous quote while stepping onto the lunar surface. If you did watch the broadcast live, I would encourage you to reflect upon the experience and consider sharing it with those who are interested.