This essay first appeared in the online journal Love in the Time of Covid: A Chronicle of a Pandemic, on 20 November, 2020:
Before any of us had spoken a word, (had processed a thought) before cities and electric billboards, a poet stood in a field and looked at the Moon in the vast expanse of the night sky. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?” he wondered.
Before I was born, (but maybe not before you were) before pocket computers and online streaming, we launched a rocket to that same Moon; we were going to step out and set foot on the lunar surface. We would call it a ‘Moonwalk’. C.B.S news commentator Eric Sevareid looked at what was being attempted and wondered how our language could possibly survive such an endeavour. “…How do you say ‘high as the sky’ anymore, or ‘the sky is the limit’ – what does that mean?” he asked.
Today, right now for me (but who knows when for you) my friend and amateur astronomer M. has been caught up in America’s Covid-19 crisis. She can still study the Moon through the glare of the Los Angeles’ night lights. She can send me messages from her pocket computer. But her four-year-old hasn’t seen another child for nearly five months. The government is talking about sending children back to school, should he go? “No,” says her New Zealand based employer, “it is too dangerous.” It will probably be too dangerous as long as they stay there. How do I say “just come home” when I know she has to stay? With what words can we consider it? Still Earthbound yet to me she is on her own Moonwalk and it disrupts our point-of-view: it seems language has broken and failed us, must be reborn and remoulded. All Moonwalks have extraordinary consequences, even in the mundane details, even if we try painstakingly to avoid it. Language is not immune: as James R. Hansen posits in his biography of Neil Armstrong, “after human explorers violated the Moon with footprints and digging tools, who again could ever find romance in poet John Keat’s question, ‘What is there in thee, Moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently?’”
Most of us know the Moon itself doesn’t glow, that it reflects the sun’s light. But I only just discovered that the Moon also reflects our own light back to us. They call it earthshine. Or the new Moon with the old Moon in her arms. Here’s another detail about the Moon: it looks different depending on how we choose to see it. It is called ‘Moon Illusion’ – when the Moon is closer to the horizon we see it as more immense; when it is high in the sky its magnitude fades away. But take a picture at both times and measure the Moon: it will be precisely the same size. “This concept took over my world for years in my early teens trying to find out why the Moon looks so big on the horizon some nights, and then an hour later it seems to pop back to a regular size,” says M. Now she likes to set bets about it with people because it doesn’t matter what the science, the facts, the measurements tell us. When we look at the Moon on the horizon we can’t help ourselves: we will see an outsized version of what is really there.
The same morning that C.B.S news commentator Eric Sevareid was musing on the impact going to the Moon might have on language, Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin were ending their two weeks of pre-launch quarantine. They didn’t want to take Earth germs to the Moon. They littered space and the Moon with other objects; it is really awful how far from ‘leave only footprints’ they were. James R. Hansen lists some of them in his biography of Neil: pairs of boots, pairs of gloves, a bagful of food wrappings, bagged urine and fecal matter, a camera, their Moonwalk life support backpacks; all went bumping down the stairs as scraps for that new world. But they were very cautious about mixing our living matter with any living matter that might be up there. When they arrived and depressurized the lunar module cabin before their Moonwalk they made sure the air was pushed out by filtered vents. More worryingly to those on Earth were the alien organisms which might want to come back with them. Michael Crichton’s sensational hit The Andromeda Strain, about a deadly extra-terrestrial microorganism, didn’t help. It was released the same year as the Moon landing in 1969 and even then fact and fiction blurred. The astronauts would have three more weeks of quarantine when they came back to Earth, starting instantly with the Biological Containment Garments they had to struggle into before being rescued from the Command Module which had returned to Earth, landing in the Pacific ocean southwest of Honolulu. They were less than an hour into the pull of Earth’s gravity, their legs and feet swollen, their heads light with air, but they hooded and zipped to save the rest of us from whatever might have been up there. M. and her child have to wear a mask every time they leave their apartment. Her four-year-old hates it and each time asks why he must wear it: he isn’t sick, he doesn’t want to wear it! It has become easier to simply never leave the apartment.
M. remembers spending one whole school holidays trying to build the perfect paper aeroplane. She had no siblings, no cousins, and her parent’s friends were often childless. Going out with her parents for dinner one evening she knew it would be a boring night, so she decided to take her grandfather’s binoculars, her father’s tripod and a bunch of paper and pens. She looked at the Moon, she drew it and its craters, and tried to figure out its geography before Wikipedia was there to tell her. “I must have thought it was quite fun because I think I did it for a few nights after that” she says. A continent away and decades earlier, Neil Armstrong has started with aeroplanes too. He built model aeroplanes, throwing them out his window to see how far they could fly. He drew them, he read about them, at fifteen he saved for nine dollar an hour flying lessons. A story would go around that it had been the Moon, always the Moon that was his destiny. An old science teacher said Neil had told him in 1946 that he would like to meet that man up there, pointing at a full Moon. “Fiction,” said Neil to his biographer: in 1946 space flight “would have been an unrealistic ambition.” But oh how we would like to believe that story, for it all to be a straight line to history: he wanted something, he got it. But in 1946 he was still building model aeroplanes, drawing “low-wing monoplanes with retractable tricycle landing gear” that none of his friends thought would get off the ground. They spent their time drawing what they knew at the time could fly: standard biplanes with fixed wheels for landing.
Before Neil Armstrong had gone to the Moon, when he was an early astronaut in the Gemini space programme, he went on a twenty-four-day goodwill tour of Latin America. On their tour the astronauts showed slides of Latin America from high-orbit: of the mouth of the Amazon River. The Andes in Ecuador. Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. This fact sticks out to me because when I was three my family went to live in Bolivia for several years. Landing in La Paz as a child I had experienced extreme altitude sickness. Another kiwi missionary family took care of us: I remember they made me vegemite toast. That was all I needed to heal. My husband tells me half the New Zealanders reading this will be outraged that I wasn’t given marmite instead. That is the fact that sticks out to him.
In M.’s Los Angeles apartment building, they have closed off all the shared space: the lobby, the pool, the roof garden. Even the elevator is rationed. They live opposite the beach but are not allowed to feel the sand. Her world is four walls on the fourth floor now. Just come home, I tell her. But they need to stay. And I can’t use words, I can’t use anything to change it: she is Moonwalking and it will have its consequences. But maybe I’m being too hard on our language, it isn’t the only feature which fails us. I think what I can do: I can send her vegemite; she can have vegemite toast everyday, every meal… but it is doubtful whether it can heal her. I could coat the Earth in vegemite but it wouldn’t heal us all. Indeed, if I did coat the Earth in vegemite what would happen to the earthshine?
When M. used to live in New Zealand, when she used to be able to leave the house, she worked as an astronomer at Auckland’s observatory. When the Moon is full the observatory gets a huge number of visitors, more than any other night. But you can’t look at the Moon on a night like that, it is too painfully bright. And you can’t see anything else either… because the Moon is too painfully bright. The best time is when it is three-quarters full or less, when the Moon’s mountains and craters cast shadows on the surface. That’s when you can really see the topography of the ground.
Often it is only possible to find what we are looking for through a long distance looking-glass; like the monocular used by Mike Collins aboard the Apollo command module. The problem is he searched and searched through that gadget and he never did find the lunar module. But it was down there: we all know the Eagle landed. Though it is confounding how many people choose not to believe it.
“Science has not mastered prophecy,” Neil Armstrong once said. “We predict too much for the next year yet far too little for the next ten. Responding to challenge is one of democracy’s great strengths. Our successes in space lead us to hope that this strength can be used in the next decade in the solution of many of our planet’s problems.” Some say the entirety of what we’ve seen this year, these last few years, adds to the theory that capitalist western democracy is an old and dying culture. In what new arms then might we be lying?
In going to America, M. was able to fulfil a lifelong dream of going to Kennedy Space Centre. “I cried all day. From the bus rolling in through the driveway to being amongst the last few people to leave after it had officially closed,” she says. What is there in thee, Moon, that thou shouldst move her heart so potently? My phone pings with photos of her there: by the replica model of the Command Module; there by the life-sized diorama of Buzz and Neil in spacesuits, leaving footprints on the Moon. After humans started going to the Moon scientists noticed the temperature was changing, the Moon was warming. For fifty years it was a mystery as to why: until scientists figured it out – the only difference was us. By walking and driving and digging and prodding around we inadvertently changed the Moon forever. It was careless. We kicked up the black dust of the Moon and it absorbed the light. Even if we hadn’t littered the Moon, even if we had only left footprints, we still would have changed everything. Oh, Moonwalking! You will have your consequences.
M. would go back to Kennedy Space Centre if she could: of course she would. But instead she types ‘Neil Armstrong’ into her new pocket computer and augments her reality. A 3D version of his dust covered spacesuit appears on her camera screen. Snap! There he is in her kitchen. I look closely: there is even his shadow on her floor.
Ping. There is one last photo from M. It is her and her son outside, no masks, no Moon, only sunshine. And behind them a big print of Neil’s famous words, “that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” The ‘a’ is in parentheses because we never heard the ‘a’, he probably didn’t actually say it. Even Neil said “I have listened to [the recording of his words], it doesn’t sound like there was time there for a word…on the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and that certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense.”
That’s our language, our words, our fragile existence: take away one-letter and all the meaning floats away. And yet, when Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Mike Collin were returning to Earth they gave one last television transmission and it was the words of our ancient poet which remained.
“Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days,” said Buzz “a verse from Psalms comes to mind to me: ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?’”