Jul 20, 2019

Flights of fantasy

My enchantment with the moon, stars, and the sky crystallized after reading 'Cosmos.' I must have been about twelve when I got the book as a gift from my cousin. I am sure I feigned stomach-ache as I was wont to do in those days to stay home from school to finish the book. 'Cosmos,' I can reliably say, changed the way I looked at the sky, changed the way I thought of life.

I hadn't been born when Apollo-11 landed on the moon, but when I read the book, it hadn't yet been fifty years. So, naturally, I presumed a man would walk on Mars in my lifetime. Hey, I was a small-town girl,  I hadn't yet evolved in my thinking about gender-roles and inherent biases. Years later, despite a more intricate understanding of all the variables that go into the possibility of such expeditions, I am saddened that we haven't even revisited the moon, let alone establish a colony there like I imagined at the time.

I have a vague memory of watching a grainy black and white program and the moment when Indira Gandhi asked Rakesh Sharma how India looked from space. It was likely staged and thought out beforehand, but I remember the stress and lilt in his voice when he answered "Sare Jahan Se Achcha."  Without a nuanced idea of the nation-state and an awareness of the military deals around such missions, it was easy to feel particularly patriotic you see.

I have over the years been addicted to reading or watching, both fiction and non-fiction material about space flights and colonies and alien species. Voyager, Soyuz, Apollo, Pathfinder, Mangalyaan - ah the romance of it all! I never gave much credence to the conspiracy theories around the moon-landing being a hoax. But have had to consider with extreme discomfort questions posed by the likes of 'Whiteys on the moon.' All said and done though, the space race of the 60s culminating with the moon landing reads like an action-thriller. It's an emotional roller-coaster, heart-warming and in my interpretation has a great ending.

Most of the moon-landing stories revolve only around NASA and the American heroes but to me, the first hero is cosmonaut Gagarin. Cosmonaut has a more majestic ring to it than astronaut; unfortunately, no one uses it anymore. A village farm boy, with a charismatic smile who became the first man on space, he apparently whistled while he went about preparing for his flight. One of the dummies in the previous flight had burned up, and mission control was telling him that they forgot to tape something together, and the man just happily whistled while he went about readying.  And then there is Valentina Tereshkova. Trust the comrades to get the first woman to orbit solo around the earth for a period longer than all the American astronauts combined before her.

I asked my parents if they remembered the moon-landing. My mother recalled how it was raining when she heard about it. My father, a retired banker, dryly remarked - he knew there was moon-landing around the same time when banks were nationalized. He talked about going to an exhibition of moon rocks in our small town some months later. And they both without a moment's hesitation recalled the name, 'Neil Armstrong.'

Well captured in both 'From the Earth to the Moon' as well as in the more recent 'First Man,' Armstrong's reticence and what comes across as an almost prosaic outlook to the moon mission actually suits the story. Dashing pioneers with a dry wit and cool composure work better in thrillers after all. A reporter questioned - 'Will you take any personal mementos to the moon, Neil?' Armstrong responded, 'Given a choice, more fuel.' You got to like that.

To paraphrase Armstrong when you go up there and observe how thin, what a small part the atmosphere is of the Earth - when you get that different vantage point, your perspective changes. An adventurous spirit, a sense of wonder, grit and a scientific temperament  - you must need it all for space explorations.

It's fifty years today since the landing and we haven't been to the moon since the Apollo missions. There are a new set of swashbucklers and am sure new triumphs and glories are waiting to happen. Like the best moment of the last century, I hope there is one this century of the heights mankind can reach.

July 20, 2019