Small step ends a long journey

Review of the exhibition ‘Moon’ at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London 19 July 2019 – 5 January 2020 ★★★★☆

I was four when I watched the first moon landing with my mother. Not long after Neil Armstrong’s boot alighted upon the lunar surface, my mother went to the living room window. My two brothers and I joined her upward gaze. “They are up there – now,” she said, pointing. Half a century on and I can still hear the wonder in her voice.

At the time it seemed like an important beginning. Surely soon humankind would journey to Mars; living complexes would orbit the earth; and space would become a place of adventure, as it was in my, then, tv favourite, Bleep And Booster?

Enjoying the National Maritime Museum’s ‘Moon’ exhibition, I realise just how naive was my reading of Apollo 11’s moment. The years between 1969 and 1972, when there were moon walks, space buggies and golf among the craters, marked far more of an end than a beginning. 

The quest for people to go further, higher and faster can be traced through Stevenson’s locomotives, to the Wright Brothers and von Braun’s rockets. The NASA’a manned moon missions provide the full stop not only to this, but to the entire age of discovery, that began when de Gama, Magellan and Columbus encircled the globe.

Moon’s view of our celestial neighbour opens with a stone tablet carved in Mesopotamia in 172 BC recording lunar eclipses. Orreries, early atlases and painted lunar likenesses continue the story of human relationships with the illuminator of the night sky. Of course the Apollo missions provide the exhibition’s big ticket items, but the story carries through the the current day. Moon missions from Japan, India, China, Germany are either pending or in the recent past.

All, however, are ‘unmanned’. They are collecting rock samples, seeking out water reserves and evaluating the affect of differing light levels. Perhaps this is the commercial and scientific consolidation of the Apollo era. In narrative terms, however, it is thin gruel.

NASA budget cuts did for moon visits, but they are emblematic of a broader change in priorities. Cheap, inclusive and less wasteful became the new guiding principles of technological advance.

It is perhaps this absence of a big story that has made the landings half centenary such a big event. Of course they were spurred by the Cold War, consumed vast resources and employed distinctly analogue-era technology. They were, however, the living definition of heroic, and were delivered in the British homes on prime time tv. If the broadcast epoch had an epic moment, it was this.

Since then, technology has shrunk in scale and purpose – at least when considered across the piece. We carry in our pockets computers of greater power than those available in Houston 50 years ago, but their principal deployment is taking selfies and sharing pictures of cats.

Missions with big rockets and cool space suites provides seductive nostalgia in which to wallow. From children’s toys, to Chinese communist posters, by way of magazine covers and fabric celebrating the spirit of the age, the exhibition is strong on cultural contextualisation. I didn’t hear David Bowie’s Space Odyssey playing, but doubtless that is being saved for an ‘evening at the museum’ event.

Christian Stangl’s film ‘Lunar’, an engaging composite of NASA images, plays on a loop. Only the impatience of my two-year-old daughter stopped me from watching it four or five times over. If you don’t plan to visit Greenwich, you can see it here.

Lunar, by Christian Strangl

Were the floorspace larger, I would have loved to have seen more about the moon’s metaphoric role. The enduring use of ‘lunatic’ as both insult and diagnosis is testimony to its potency. And the amount of actual material from the space program is slight. In the context of the available gallery, however, there was sufficient to transport me on a journey through the ether for slightly over an hour.

Adult admissions are £10 each, with discounts for online booking.