On this date in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It would be six hours later — technically the day after — that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually walked on the moon. With the recent New Horizons flyby of Pluto, I has been thinking of the lunar program. I keep thinking about James Burke. He was the chief reporter on the Apollo missions for the BBC. And he made the point much later that the BBC was committed to reporting on what was actually being done on those missions — the science. The US media did not cover these missions this way.
When I was growing up, the Apollo missions were about Tang, moon rocks (for what purpose I could not have told you), and most of all, the very fact of landing on the moon. As Burke noted, it wasn’t surprising that the American public quickly lost interest in the Apollo program: how many times are you going to get excited about landing on the moon when each time is pretty much the same thing? It turns out the answer that is: once.
I saw the same thing in the coverage of the Pluto mission. The best coverage was found on the BBC and the Guardian. The US media generally did a worse job. There were exceptions. I thought that Time did quite a good job of covering it. But the television coverage — both local and national — was pathetic. I don’t think that Discovery Channel could stop airing reruns of Mermaids: The Body Found long enough to cover what was happening near Pluto.
Americans don’t seem to get as interested in unmanned space exploration. It’s all about science — there is no “adventure.” Or maybe it is just the media. If the media got excited about it, the people would probably follow. For me, it’s much nicer to have unmanned probes. If I were watching manned space exploration, much of my enjoyment would be ruined by my concern for the safety of the people involved. Plus: I’m not sure it is necessary to send people out. Couldn’t we now send a robot to the Moon, pick up some rocks, and fly back to Earth? Maybe manned space travel was just a necessary crutch until we learned how to do this properly.
Regardless, to me it is all about what we learn, not the process by which we learn it. But landing on the moon was important — one small step in our continuing exploration of the cosmos.