Magnificent Desolation


50 years ago yesterday man first landed on the moon. It was about 9:20 pm by the clock in the Crotchety Family’s apartment when Mission Control confirmed that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed safely on the lunar surface. We had already been watching live TV pictures for two or three hours and it would soon be time for the two teenage boys to go to bed. But how could we sleep? There, live, on our fuzzy black and white TV, perhaps the most momentous event of our lifetimes was unfolding.

The astronauts had been scheduled to sleep for five hours after landing but less than three hours later (00:43 hrs London time) they decided to start preparations to leave the Lunar Module and descend to the moon’s dust-covered surface. My brother and I didn’t need to ask if we could stay up a while longer. Soon, we would witness the very first contact between man-made boot and extra-terrestrial rock. We couldn’t go to bed now.

But the clock on the mantlepiece slowed to a crawl, as if someone had poured thick treacle into the mechanism, and the TV anchorman struggled to find anything to say as we waited impatiently for the lingering suspense to ease.

At 03:39 hrs our time the Lunar Module hatch finally opened. A long ten minutes later Neil Armstrong, in a space suit and life support backpack, squeezed out of the cockpit and began to clamber down the ladder. Unable to see his feet because of the equipment on his chest each step was slow and deliberate. Why, we wondered, was it taking so long to climb down a short ladder? Was it really as awkward as it seemed? Or was this merely for the benefit of the movies that would surely be made when the crew returned home?

Then the ghostly white figure on the TV screen half stepped, half jumped down from the bottom rung. Armstrong’s feet disappeared off the bottom of the screen and for a moment I thought he had dropped knee deep into the dust. Then came those never to be forgotten words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. He clearly missed the indefinite article but it was exactly the right thing to say and I knew then that the world would forgive the spoken stumble or blame it on technical issues.

mock up

Our sleepy eyes watched a while longer and then we all went to our beds, satisfied that we had seen the epoch-making moment.

I don’t remember watching Buzz Aldrin exit the Lunar Module or his description of the scene as “magnificent desolation” but that is the phrase that sticks in my mind when I think of that night in 1969. The Apollo 11 mission was a magnificent achievement but the moon is a truly desolate place.

Was visiting that pock-marked celestial body worth the time, the effort, the money and the lives lost in the Apollo programme? The space programme as a whole spawned tremendous technological advances but it consumed resources that would have been better spent, I think, on solving a few of the more immediate social problems here on Earth. Explore the moon by all means, but robots are better suited to the task these days, I feel.

Nevertheless, that first manned journey to the moon should be celebrated and I have chosen to do that today with a series of tracks all called “Magnificent Desolation”. The first is short – only 1 minute 23 seconds long – and recalls those sleepy hours with the Crotchety Family at the end of the sixties.

After that dreamy introduction, here’s a track from the To the Moon: Phase III EP by Metronaut. This one has a relaxed beat and some female vocals, although there are no actual words.

Picking up the beat a little more and adding lyrics we have Umunna Isii taking us to an Earthly “destination magnificent desolation”.

Graham Smith’s take is a gentle electronic excursion dedicated to all mankind. It’s a pleasant way to while away the hours of a long journey but it doesn’t quite capture either the magnificence of the achievement or the desolation of the destination.

And, finally, we have some more ambient electronica from Inal Bilsel that rejoices in the emptiness of the lunar landscape.

For those of you with a Spotify account, this playlist pulls all five of these tracks together.

It’s 50 years since man first walked on the moon and the live TV coverage is one of Crotchety Man’s most treasured memories. If I had been sent to bed that evening I don’t think I would ever have forgiven my parents.

4 thoughts on “Magnificent Desolation

  1. Good to read your take on this and hear those spacey sounds. I remember collecting the space picture cards you got with bubble gum in the late 50s – by 1969, we thought the moon landing was just the start. Then, like the 1960s themselves, it all just fizzled out! That’s hype for you, but still a mind-expanding event …

    Liked by 1 person

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