All serious historians agree that the Apollo programme of the 1960s and early 1970s was the highpoint of western civilisation.
There were, of course significant achievements after Apollo – Voyager, the Hubble space telescope and its successors, images of black holes, the development of economic fusion power even, although it was too late. And there was very considerable social progress after Apollo: for nearly 45 years things improved steadily. It is easy to forget this latter fact given the events that came later: the incarceration without trial, forced labour, mass rape and eventual butchery of immigrants, minority groups, people with ‘incompatible’ sexual orientations, journalists, liberals and others who inconvenienced those in power in the mid 2020s now completely overshadows the progress that was made ten years earlier.
The rise of the oligarchs and dictators, with their systematic suppression of the press and all divergent opinion, encouragement of mob rule, stupidity, xenophobia and science denial in the second and third decades of the 21st century was the beginning of the end.
The failed expeditions to Mars in 2024–2025 were both farce and tragedy. Donald Trump, still claiming democratic legitimacy despite the unequivocal results of the 2020 elections, was by this time in the final stages of senile decay: never more than the shell of a human, he was by then no more than a fulminating husk under the direct control of his Russian masters. Musk, a deeply flawed man, comes out as the unlikely hero of the affair: defending the choice of black and female astronauts against Trump’s tirades and demands and, when the outcome of the mission was beyond doubt, volunteering himself. The heroism of the astronauts, knowing they faced, at best, slow death by radiation poisoning on Mars, can not be overstated. In the event, of course, they did not get that far: the live broadcast of the terrible end of the second mission, with the doomed astronauts’ condemnation of the programme and Trump even as their oxygen leaked away, ensured there would be no more although the US was by then losing the technical ability in any case. Musk’s fate remains unknown: it is assumed he was murdered by members of Trump’s family in revenge for his ‘sabotaging’ of the missions.
The two nuclear wars of 2032 (US-China) and 2035 (Russia-China-UK), while limited, killed well over half a billion people. Climate change (denied, of course, by the oligarchs but well-known to be an existential threat by the turn of the millennium) did the rest: the harvest failures of 2040 killed nearly 150 million people in North America alone and marked the effective end of the US which had already been weakened by the war with China and a series of preceding wars (the US won no war it fought after 1945): after 2040 there were never less than two competing presidents claiming authority over what had been the US, and in 2053 there were, briefly, seven.
Reliable information is increasingly scarce after 2055. The Kessler event of 2032–2033, triggered by the intentional destruction of satellites by the US in the US-China war, destroyed essentially all existing satellites and made space inaccessible to humans, possibly for the next few centuries. Planet-wide Earth-based communication systems had been catastrophically damaged in the two wars, and finally collapsed in 2055. So information after 2055 is inevitably somewhat speculative: we simply do not know how many survivors there are in the UK and what their condition is, for instance.
By 2060 the population of the former US was estimated at under ten million, of which no more than a few tens of thousands had access to electricity. Those numbers will be lower now. The UK, long in decline, and latterly little more than vassal state of the US, itself effectively a dictatorship between 2020 and 2040, also essentially ceased to exist in the 2035 war: the estimated surviving population there may now be as few as tens of thousands, mostly in Scotland. The northern areas of continental Europe are still relatively benign, but Italy, Spain, Greece, much of southern France and many other countries have been lost to climate change.
Few people are now alive who were alive during the Apollo programme, and fewer still who have any memory of it. Soon there will be no-one alive who remembers it.
But we must remember Apollo: we must remember that a great nation could devote itself to a mission of exploration, not war, and could thus achieve great things, whatever came later. We must remember that this is possible, that hatred, lies and division spread by people with small minds are not the only way. We must remember that, once, there was a project where they could truly say
that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. “Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
I remember Apollo.
Translated from the Japanese, 20690716