As someone who quite often writes obituaries (for the Guardian, amongst others) I always have my eye out for death notices (these days more likely to be found on twitter than in the columns of The Times), so of course I spotted news today of the demise of Neil Armstrong, the US astronaut, at the age of 82. I send my sincere sympathy to his family and friends. But it would be hypocritical of me to say that I jumped for joy at pictures of the First Man on the Moon when Apollo 11 landed there in the summer of 1969.
I was in South Vietnam at the time, as a cub reporter, not a soldier, I hasten to add. And even though some of my Vietnamese friends were gobsmacked by the footage (though others swore blind it must be a fake), I had two very negative thoughts at the time, neither of which reflected on Neil Armstrong personally. The first was: Why the hell is the United States planting a US flag on the moon instead of the UN flag; this should be a celebration for all humankind, not US power and money. And second: there are still millions of people dying round the world, not only from wars but also from hunger; how many lives could the cost of this mission have saved? Doubtless some people will say I was naive (well, I was only 19) or radicalised by the horrors I had witnessed in Vietnam (which is true). But interestingly, the same thoughts crossed my mind this summer, 43 years later, when NASA’s exploratory craft landed on Mars and gingerly moved about a few steps. Of course there were no human beings on board on this occasion, though I suspect that will only be a matter of time.
The cost of the Mars mission is literally astronomical, but again the same worries nagged my brain. Could Mars exploration not be in the name of the world, rather than the United States? And are there not enough problems here on Earth — ongoing hunger, wars, environmental degredation and manmade climate change — which perhaps ought to be a higher priority?