This paper first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), pp. 1-2.
On a certain day, almost forty years ago, I was waiting to be served in a sweet shop in Rawtenstall, a mill town, as it was then described, in Lancashire. The woman in front of me paid for her purchases and ended her conversation with the shopkeeper with the words 'Scientists! It'll rain, just you see!'
The date was July 16th 1969, and NASA was about to launch Apollo 11, the spaceship that would transport the first human beings to the Moon. It seemed to me unreasonable, to say the least, that a spaceship taking off in Florida would cause rain to fall in Lancashire, over 5,000 miles away, on the same day. But that was this lady's main concern when it came to the Apollo Moon Mission.
At that time I was doing a vacation job in the local Parks and Cemeteries Department. The Moon Mission was a regular topic of conversation amongst the workmen and we were all pretty much captivated. Interestingly, many of these men had seen active service during the War and for no good reason, so it seemed to me, expressed some strong anti-American sentiments. In particular there were two conflicting complaints: one was that America should have joined us earlier than 1941, the other that they should have kept out of Europe altogether and 'left it to the British to finish Hitler off'. I wouldn't be surprised if there were some individuals who espoused either point of view depending on what company they were in.
Especially vocal on this subject was Harry, a strange man who had in the past campaigned for the Communist Party but at a later stage had done something of an about turn and decided that all the ills of the nation were due to the education of the working classes, night school ('f***ing neet school') being a particular target for his venom.
I think I can still recite Harry's tirade about the American soldiers he encountered when in the army during the War. It started off 'F***ing Yanks! Their ´eads were so stuffed up with ´ow good their own country were, they'd never ´eard o´ Lancashire' and the rest was 75% expletives.
In fact Harry had indirectly put his finger on the crucial point. Like many of his generation, it was Harry's head that had been so stuffed up with how good his country was that he expected everyone else to have heard of Lancashire. It took some time for it to dawn on him (if it ever did) and the rest of us that we weren't top dog anymore - it was America. Even as Harry spoke, Mr Harold Wilson, who six years earlier had spoken of the 'Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution' was busy managing our national decline. And the reality was that it was the Americans and Russians who were, in the main, responsible for 'finishing Hitler off', and all but ending fascism in Europe. Thanks to America also, we eventually, saw off communism too.
The Moon Mission was not without its critics in the UK. The historian Mr A.J.P. Taylor declared on television that it was all a fuss over nothing and of no historical consequence ('the biggest non-event of my lifetime') and his friend Mr Malcolm Muggeridge opined that, as a human achievement, it came nowhere near the verses of Mr T.S. Elliot. Many people, myself included, held that money spent on sending people to the Moon would be better used to help alleviate world poverty and famine. On the other hand, a supporter of the mission was, naturally, the popular astronomer Mr Patrick Moore, who argued that because spaceships have to travel through radiation and radiation is used to treat cancer, spending money on space travel would help patients suffering from cancer.
Whatever the case, there are certain things that cannot be disputed about the Apollo Moon Mission (unless, like some people, you think the whole thing was a hoax). It was, to be sure, a triumph for the American people and their leaders, but also a triumph for humankind, a stunning demonstration of what men and women are capable of achieving when they work together. For once, people all over the planet were able to share a collective sense of awe and wonder at a historical event that wasn't a war or the imminence of war, or the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction, or the assassination of a world leader, or a great natural disaster. It was something positive and exciting. There was no anger or bitterness; nobody was threatened and nobody got hurt. And, of course, it was, and remains, a triumph for science.
And so, on that day 39 years ago, three men set off on their journey to the Moon. And - for once - it didn't rain in Lancashire.