Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and Goodnight

On the night Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I lay on my back on the cold wet grass and pressed my father’s World War Two binoculars to my eyes.

They were heavy, designed for spotting tanks on the horison, and they shook in my hands as I battled to adjust the focus, like a captain steering a ship on a stormy sea. Then the moon swam into sharpness, half of it swallowed by the dark, and the stars stopped spinning and the earth was still.

I held my breath as I looked at the craters, their edges so crisp that I could reach out and touch them, the wounds and scars of a world that had long turned to stone and dust in the sky. But on that night, the moon was alive.

I thought if I squinted hard enough, I might be able to make out the shadows of Armstrong and Aldrin, loping on the lunar surface, and the bug-shaped module that waited to carry them home.

But it was enough to know that the big old moon, on that night, was for once not alone. It had visitors. And the earth, for once, was not big enough to contain our dreams.

I heard my mother calling me to come in for supper, warning me that if I lay out in the yard any longer, I would catch my death of cold. “Just now,” I promised, “just now!”

I lay there, looking at the moon, the words I had penned in my science project book earlier in the day still reeling through my head. Not the words of Neil Armstrong as he took his small step, but the words on the little plaque that the astronauts would leave behind, next to the flag and the footprints that would never fade.

“We came in peace for all mankind”.

Who were they hoping would read those words, out in the eternal blackness of space?

We may wonder today whether it is necessary and wise to send travellers to the moon and Mars, to spend billions on missions to other worlds, when there is so much on our own piece of rock that needs to be fixed. But it is exactly because we wonder that we go.

We go for the same reason that we climb mountains, and run marathons, and tinker with machines, and put paint on canvas and scratchings on a page.

We go because we wonder what lies beyond us and within us, and because wonder on its own is never enough. We go because we need to know. The astronauts of Apollo were not just the best of us; they were all of us. They were all mankind. And the moment we stop dreaming and wondering, the moment we stop travelling, will be the moment that we, too, turn to stone and dust in the sky.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and goodnight.