‘Be curious…’

31 08 2012

‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’

(Neil Armstrong – July 20th 1969)

‘Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’

(Neil Armstrong)

‘Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see. Be curious.’

(Professor Stephen Hawking – London Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony)


I was on an early morning ‘taxi’ run to Brum Airport (Chris & Nicci off to Venice for a few days!) so had to make do with Sky News highlights of the previous evening’s London 2012 Paralympic Opening ceremony – heralded as a triumphant celebration of humankind’s ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds, and one that will alter the world’s perception of disability. 

Physicist Stephen Hawking got rave reviews for leading the audience, on a voyage of enlightenment, which highlighted a world of scientific discoveries and the fight for equality by the disability rights movement. From one of the most famous wheelchairs in the world, he urged, ‘Look at the stars, not down at your feet and be curious.’      

The 60,000 strong audience were invited to take part in a simultaneous ‘apple bite’ (fruit kindly provided by Games sponsors Sainsbury’s – I do hope it was British!) in acknowledgement of the crunch moment when Isaac Newton realised the concept of gravity.

Later, a blaze of light illuminated the Olympic Stadium, recreating the Big Bang, followed by a Busby Berkely representation of the expanding universe. Prospero emerged from ‘The Tempest’ – this time a cameo role for Ian McKellan (or was it Gandalf?) – supplementing Shakespeare’s poetry with suitable references to ‘the beautiful diversity of humanity’.

4000 athletes from 165 competing nations paraded into the stadium to an electrifying version of the late Ian Dury’s song, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. New Wave punk rocker Dury, who contracted and was crippled by polio aged seven, wrote it in 1981 to express his disdain for that year’s International Year of Disabled Persons, which he considered patronising and counter-productive. Its uncompromising lyrics, banned by the BBC, were once described by Dury as a ‘war cry’. Last night it lived up to that billing, reclaimed as an anthem for the Paralympics – performed by dance act Orbital and the Graeae Theatre Company (made up of disabled performers).

Thankfully times and attitudes are changing. Those of us who inhabit what Dury’s song calls ‘Normal Land’ are invited by a slogan for the Paralympics to, ‘see the ability not the disability’ – let’s do that.      

It is more than apt that Stephen Hawking’s rallying call for humankind to ‘Be Curious’ should come but a few days after the world mourned the passing of 82-year-old Neil Alden Armstrong –  aerospace engineer, and test pilot, forever assured his unique place in the history of humankind as the first person to set foot on the Moon.

It was on July 20th 1969 that Armstrong captured the imagination of an entire planet, guiding Apollo 11 to a safe touchdown (with just 20 seconds of fuel remaining) before announcing to an anxious, waiting and watching, world, ‘Houston. Tranquillity Base here. Eagle has landed’

Several hours and numerous safety checks later, he emerged from the landing craft, carefully, clambering down its ladder in a cumbersome spacesuit, before stepping from the final rung and on to the moon’s dusty surface, uttering the words by which he will always be remembered, ‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’ As pub quiz pedants are quick to point out, Armstrong always maintained it was meant to be ‘a man’

I was just sixteen years old, sitting 240,000 miles away, along with hundreds of millions of others, watching history in the making, as the live pictures were beamed back to Earth.

There are still those sad conspiracy theorists who maintain the planting of the rigid American flag  into the Moon’s surface and the well-known images of Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, bouncing around unhindered by the Moon’s minimal gravitational pull, were all elaborate hoaxes, stage-managed by NASA.      

As the news of Armstrong’s death broke, our own Professor Brian Cox tweeted that he wasn’t having any of that:    

‘Sad to hear about the death of Neil Armstrong. I do think Apollo the greatest of human achievements. For once, we reached beyond our grasp…’

‘…Rather than calling everyone who tweets that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon a manure-brained ball sack, I am just blocking them’

By common consensus Armstrong was a reluctant American hero, who shunned the limelight and considered he was merely doing his job. Having fulfilled that duty, as NASA’s first civilian astronaut, he led a semi-reclusive existence on his Ohio dairy farm and as a professor in the relative anonymity of the University of Cincinnati’s engineering faculty.   

For teenagers, such as me, who wondered at that first moon landing 43 years ago, it fleetingly opened up the frontiers of space and the fictional space travel of comic strip hero Dan Dare and TV Time Lord Dr Who suddenly becoming a distinct possibility – within our lifetime?     

There were to be five further manned Moon landings. The last, Apollo 17, was in December 1972, meaning that nobody born after 1935 has so far walked on the moon. I wonder how many instantly recall Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt? I admit I had to look them up. However I did recall that 1971 Apollo 14 member Alan Shepard famously became the first man to club a golf ball on the Moon – hell of a way to go for a round of golf!     

The intervening years have demonstrated that NASA’s curiosity was time limited. Although there have been technological spin-offs, essentially it all turned out to be pretty pointless, inspired by little more than a political need to win the race to the moon – a flag waving, sabre rattling, exercise in the midst of the US/Soviet cold war. But that should not and will not detract from Armstrong’s memory. In the words of President Obama, ‘Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.’   






One response

2 09 2012

Nice post, and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. It’s truly sad to see such a legend pass.

I can’t remember the exact words but I read a great quote about his death that roughly went ‘As long as history books continue to be written people will continue to remember Neil Armstrong’. I thought that was very true.

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