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Moon:Memory July 21, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Moon, Science, Science Fiction.

I think I saw the moon landings. I have a memory, I’ve had it for years now, of being in the sitting room of my parents house in Raheny watching the shaky footage on a black and white television. There’s a problem though. It was only this month that I realised that I would have to have been about 3 years and 8 months old when the moon landing occurred. And, given that, is it really likely that I actually saw Armstrong climb down from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon? Or rather that I remembered it? It gets worse. I don’t know if RTÉ carried the footage, but, the time, 3.39 a.m. Does it seem reasonable that I’d have been awake at that point? Maybe I was bundled downstairs to watch. I don’t know and there’s no one to ask. So… the question remains did I see the reports the next day, or did I imagine them happening subsequently.

I suspect the latter two options are most likely, albeit they’re the most prosaic. Ah well. Another option is that I saw subsequent moon landings. It’s funny though. Almost the entirety of my life, including my adult life I’ve been convinced I did see them. And now… I don’t know.

If I did see it I wonder what I thought about it at the time.

There’s a fabulous book that I’ve been reading recently called The Baby in the Mirror by child psychologist Charles Fernyhough which through his appraisal of his own daughters mental development in her first three or four years gives an insight into memory and its centrality to our ability to understand the world.

As he notes:

In contemplating a forthcoming journey, we don’t just make a physical connection with the human being who will be passing through that airport and hailing that taxi; we make a mental connection, imagining the sights and sounds, the varied emotions of arrival. It takes a leap of imagination before we make the leap of substance.

In foreseeing herself in Australia, Athena [his daughter who was going to Australia with him to live] needed some of that self-thread. There was that little person, in the image of the future she had conjured up; there was something that it was like to that little person; and it would be the same as what it was like to be this little person.

Athena needed some understanding of herself as a centre of experience that persisted like her body persisted, with a future as well as a present. She needed to be a time-traveller.

I wonder about that. I was a bit older than Athena, but the way in which events at a very early stage in life impress makes me wonder how much of my personality was shaped by the background noise that was the space programme, something that ultimately fed and informed my cultural tastes, my sense of self. Did the moon landing operate on a subtly similar level with thousands of children thinking that they too could place themselves in the picture, so to speak. That the adventure of it was a visceral part of them and their self-identity, and was this because in large part we were there ready to be shaped just as these events were happening? Otherwise why, if my memory of watching the landing on television is a construct did I want it to be something that I lived through directly?

The meaning of it all is fascinating too. I mean, what did I think was going on then? Fernyhough argues that:

Ask a child, as Piaget did, who made the sun and the moon and you are likely to get a creationist answer. For children growing up on the shores of Lake Geneva, the stars of the constellation of Pleiades might have been scattered there by God. Piaget’s interpretation was that young children suffered from an ‘artificialist’ bias, mistakenly inclined to see a creative agency in inanimate objects. As their thinking becomes flexible enough to give them a basic grasp of the laws of physics, they become better able to see how the landmarks of nature could have arisen without human or divine intervention. Piaget saw artificialism… as a wrinkle of cognitive immaturity which is ironed out by further development. As you grow into more sophisticated reasoning about the physical world, he argued, you rely less on God for your cosmology.

However, Fernyhough believes that this is purely cultural rather than cognitive…

In one recent study, Australian and British children were tested on their knowledge of cosmology, such as their understanding that the earth is a sphere on which people can live without falling off. Even controllling for general intelligence, the Australian kids showed a significantly richer and more scientific understanding of cosmology than their British peers. One might say that they could not help but do so. Australian children grow up well aware of their distinctive location (relative to other English speaking nations) below the Equator. Their allegiance to the Southern Cross, as depicted on their flag, is emphasized in their elementary school curriculum, which introduces cosmology at an earlier age than in the UK.

So perhaps all those news reports and diagrams rubbed off, giving a sense of the universe, or at least the position of humans within it a greater depth than might otherwise have occurred.

Subsequently the memory faded into what I’d describe as a general fascination (although that’s too pointed a term, perhaps interest or even good-will better describes it) towards all things space related. It might have been happening in the sky, on the moon, tens and thousands of miles away, but it was an extension of the 5 year old, 10 year, 20 year old and so on, me. Each achievement, each milestone something to do with me. Certainly that was true up to late adolescence. Skylab fell? It fell on me, metaphorically. I still remember discussing the landing of the first Shuttle with others with that sense of fascination. But something changed. Probably I just got older. Social activities filled in and crowded out that space.

I didn’t follow the programme with the same interest as the years progressed. The news that they’d discovered exo-solar planets through telescopes came as a signficant surprise to me and as the numbers ramped up of just how many were discovered it was clear I’d completely lost touch.

Sure, on the cultural side the consumption of SF in whatever form continued, but the linkage to the actuality of space exploration certainly dimmed. That’s changed. The rise of the internet has made it much more a part of life again. Not in the same way though. It’s not as close, even if I still feel that same sense of good-will towards it. Maybe even a greater fascination as I realise that many of the achievement I once thought would have occurred by now haven’t and may not yet in my life-time, making that which did happen doubly precious (and apologies for the shameless solipsism of this piece… but, thems the breaks)…

But then, how could it be the same? The truth is I’m pretty sure now it didn’t quite happen the way I thought it did… That while it happened, it didn’t quite happen to me…


1. alastair - July 21, 2009

I’m the same ballpark age, and have no problem remembering watching the moon landings, but then I also recall the birth of my sister earlier that year. The moon landings were watched around at a wealthy family friend’s house on BBC2 ‘colour’. They were late at night, but there was always the possibility of catching some kids TV in colour the next day.


2. Pete Baker - July 21, 2009

Well, I don’t remember watching the moon landings.

I was 6 months old at the time.

But I can point to the recollections of those who were there.



3. sonofstan - July 21, 2009

RTE definitely showed it – we were in single channel land at the time and i remember seeing it in our front room (I was nearly 9)


4. Tortoise - July 22, 2009

Watched it on black and white RTE. Dull stuff, except for the glorious moment when Kevin O’Kelly (for some reason I think he was the guy, the talking head doing all the scientific explanations using little plastic models) relayed the information that there was a rumour that the point of touchdown on the moon’s surface had been changed. *THE SITE HAS BEEN SHIFTED” he intoned—-except he actually said “The S*H*TE HAS BEEN SIFTED” Oh, how we laughed, in those innocent, non-ironic, pre-Tommy Tiernan days.

Norman Mailer’s book “Of A Fire On The Moon” remains for me the definitive moon book. It does what none of those poor talking heads could do: makes engineering, spacecraft, and the moon interesting.

That moon summer made us all a little restless, dreaming about other worlds, or wondering about the fate of our own, perhaps.


5. WorldbyStorm - July 22, 2009

I’m very interested that you recall it alastair. Problem is I haven’t got anyone I can talk to who will validate my ‘memory’.

Great thread Pete.

My favourite book on this is Moon Dust, of which more maybe later…I haven’t read the Mailer book, although I enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s one.


6. Phil - July 22, 2009

I remember it vividly (I was eight at the time). Trouble is, I definitely don’t remember being got out of bed in the middle of the night to watch it. (A few years later, my parents did get me out of bed to see Comet Kohoutek, for which I’m eternally grateful.) Maybe we watched it all the next afternoon, when the TV started again (no daytime TV in those days).


7. Tipster - July 22, 2009

I was four and I was brought downstairs to watch it on the TV my parents rented for the week specially to have it for the event. (I wonder did they get a TV license???)


8. Tomaltach - July 22, 2009

lovely post WBS.

A few years before my granny died she was telling me about a visit to a neighbour’s house one summer’s evening that she made years before. It was just before these elderly neighbours, “The Mullens”, passed on, and it was one of her last visits there. There had been a wedding or some kind of family ocassion. My grandmother knew she went there with a young boy and asked me if it I had know the Mullens, or if I could recall being with her that night. (I used to spend all my holidays at my granny’s house when I was a boy because I loved the farm). I was convinced I was there. I told her I could remember the cars outside the house and where some of them were parked. But of course I was wrong. I wasn’t there at all. The Mullens had passed on a few years before I was born!

Memory is a fascinating thing. I read a book last year called “Searching for memory: the brain, the mind, and the past” by Daniel Schacter. One thing he notes is “one cannot infer the veracity
of a memory from the emotion that accompanies
recollection”. Basically he was saying that an emotional experience and an unconnected ‘visual’ memory can be stored using different mechanisms and only ‘connected’ later. In this he talks about the minefield of using evidence in court cases and cites a number of US cases where the accounts given in perfectly good faith, where witnesses believed very strongly in their veracity, were shown to have been impossible.

By the time I was born, the great, short, moon walking era has just come to and end. But an old book on rockets that I picked up in my granny’s house (The Rocket:How it Works, Ladybird 1967) lead me to a fascination with space flight, and later, astronomy. Like WBS, however, my devotion to astronomy faded over time, and now, while I still follow major events, I read little about the subject and haven’t watched Patrick Moore’s “the sky at night” for years.


9. Tortoise - July 23, 2009

Only just now read your fascinating post WorldbyStorm. I am convinced I was taken outside by my parents on a dark night in the late 50s to see the Russian spaceship with “Little Lemon” on board. But I would only have been 3 at the time. Our connection to the heavens is perhaps deeper and older than we think. Scanning the midnight sky for constellations, stars, the Great Bear, Venus burning low on the horizon in summer etc. is a strange, destabilizing experience which, paradoxically seems to connect us to all mankind, our brothers. Hence the feeling of having been part of a great defining moment, of wanting to be part of it, even if you were not really there. We huddle together to watch the skies—the moonshot, an eclipse, a starry night. Remember the loneliness described by the astronauts as they looked back from the moon to their home–earth– and all its peoples who were like their own kin.

“Memory” is merely the narrative we choose to tell ourselves, the narrative which makes most sense in the context of all we have “known”, which includes all we have imagined. The child’s imaginative world is a sacred site, totally real to the child, foreshadowing the fears, longings,interests, ideologies of the adult. As you say, social events, what we call “the real world” ,will crowd out the imaginative realm, but we are never really free of its resonances. We can never resist its pull. In that sense, like Athena, we are all time travellers.

Our natural tendency is to mythologize, to seek the larger connection. Space and the stars reveal our smallness, our trivial role in the grandeur of the Cosmos. Looking upward we need to tell ourselves comforting stories, to assert ourselves against the implacable silence of the heavens. Historians hate this human tendency to mythologize, to mis-remember. But the artist knows better. As the film director John Ford said (when accused of mythologizing American history in his Western films) “If it’s a choice between the fact and the myth, choose the myth” It is the myth that haunts us. As yours continues to haunt you.


10. WorldbyStorm - July 23, 2009

That’s very true. It is that sense of despite being individual that one can become not merely part of something larger, but in effect part of everything or at least strands of everything… going to have to think about that.


11. Neil Armstrong 1930 – 2012 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 27, 2012

[…] Here’s a piece written here in 2009 on the 30th anniversary of the Moon landing. There were a series of posts that month, just click on August 2009 in the right hand bar. Share this:ShareFacebookTwitterEmailDiggRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]


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