I was eight and a half.
I remember knowing about Apollo 8. That it had carried the first men around the moon. Nine and ten went by without much ado, then the next thing I remember was my dad waking us (me and my sister) up around 2am.
The telly was black and white of course and the screen quite small. It was a different time – we didn’t at that stage even have a phone in the house. I’ll not bore you all by making you read the words. Like me, I’m sure you can repeat them word for word having heard them ad nauseum over the years. The words I heard from Neil Armstrong that morning are less important than the feelings I had.
That day, at the age of eight and a half, I believed that anything was possible. I knew of course, in my heart of hearts, that I would never go into space, or anything as glamorous as that. But I knew, if I got the right knowledge, if I learnt everything I could, that there were few limits on what I as an individual, and we as the human race could achieve.
My eyes were lifted above and beyond the grim horizons of the South Hackney estate I called home to places I may never have previously seen. I wanted to go there, and I knew now how to get there. I had a reason to learn everything I could possibly learn.
I can’t look you in the eye and claim I know for certain that without the moon landing I would not have become the person I have. I can’t prove it. But I don’t have to. I believe it. I know it to be true. I know that on that July morning I wanted to know everything I could find out about getting to the moon. I wanted to read everything I could. How did they build the rocket? How did they calculate the orbit? How far was the moon away? Why were the TV signals delayed? How did they carry enough oxygen? What sort of computer did they have? I had a billion questions.
The one question I never had was “Sir, why are we learning this?” Instead, I asked “Sir, why aren’t we learning that?” Because I had seen what was possible.
This is why we seek knowledge. Because we want to do, we want to be and we want to go somewhere. We want to change something, to make a difference. Achieving nothing, knowledge for knowledge sake is a sterile undertaking. Children with a reason to learn are knowledge sponges. And once in a generation along comes a catalyst for learning, a concrete expression of what humankind is capable of, which helps remove the limitations children too often place on themselves.
One hundred years ago Europe embarked on a four year war that brought the continent to its knees. Ninety years later we, all of us, sent a machine to travel five times around the sun, clocking up over 6.4 billion kilometres to eventually rendezvous 800 million kilometres away with a rock travelling at 55,000 km/h.
A small rock.
Tomorrow we attempt to land on this rock. In of itself this is an extraordinary feat, of science, of mathematics, of engineering. Far more than that it is a testament to the desire to do, to be, to go. This was not attempted just to see if we could do it. It was to seek out further knowledge, to answer some of the hardest questions we have about the very existence of life on Earth. To make a difference. This is why we learn, so we can do things like this. Tomorrow we attempt this seemingly impossible feat. The day after we seek to defeat Ebola. Next week we try to invent a replacement for antibiotics. We go on. Doing, and being, and making a difference.
We can do so much, go so far and be far more than we ever have been because of the shoulders we stand on. Some of those giants are people and we can all name our own. I also know that some of those giants are events, the moon landing being the most important one in my lifetime. Tomorrow, when we land on a comet (and I keep repeating that because I still find it slightly incredible) will be another. A whole new generation of children will get a leg up to their own personal futures.
How I wish I were eight and half this evening, with the whole of tomorrow to look forward to.