Inspiration, and the desire to strive for a seemingly impossible goal, can come from the most unexpected of places. Could anyone imagine today a President of the United States, or the leader of any country at all for that matter, unifying a nation behind a rallying cry for the spirit of adventure? John F Kennedy did just that in a speech in Houston, Texas, in September of 1962: ’Why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may as well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the Moon!’
We CHOOSE to go to the Moon. It can sometimes feel to us today that we are living in a world governed by the politics of division; of the building of walls to separate families, of dividing the loyalties of a nation simply in order to hold on to power, of leave or remain.
What is so striking about Kennedy’s speech, more so today than it would have been in 1962, is the pure, unifying, vaulting ambition of it. And why should we go to the Moon? ‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.’
Of course, Kennedy’s motivations were not entirely pure. The constant threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union meant that dominion over the skies was politically and psychologically important to America at the time. But the greatest achievements of humanity are rarely completely altruistic, and the kind of money that was needed to develop the Apollo program was never going to be provided by the US government without some significant, non-scientific, politically-motivated factors.
There is a parallel here with Alan Turing, who was gifted the opportunity and the funds to develop an early form of digital computer, the Bombe, not through the scientific curiosity of the British government but because it would help the British to decipher Enigma-encrypted German communications. Scientific necessity doesn’t tend to motivate politicians into action so much as the threat of losing wars, or votes.
Today, humanity faces perhaps the greatest challenge it has ever faced, that of protecting the Earth and everything that lives on it from irreversible harm by tackling the causes of climate change. If ever there was a time for us to unite behind a cause that is for the benefit of us all, it is now. But what are we doing? We have become consumed with petty political point-scoring, animosity and division. Wasting precious time.
Professor Stephen Hawking (in his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions) wrote: ‘I hope that going forward, even when I am no longer here, people with power can show creativity, courage and leadership. Let them rise to the challenge of sustainable development goals, and act not out of self-interest, but out of common interest. I am very aware of the preciousness of time. Seize the moment. Act now.’
The astronaut Edgar D Mitchell (the sixth person to walk on the Moon) put it succinctly when he described how he felt when he looked at the Earth from the Moon: ’You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’
Kennedy’s speech opens One Giant Leap and sets us on the journey ahead. After Kennedy’s speech (which also incorporates within it the finest poem ever written about the thrill of flying, by pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr, ‘High Flight’) we hear the echoes of our distant ancestors. For as long as we have been able to look up at the sky and wonder, we have praised the Moon and worshipped it.
I also imagine the relationship between the Earth and the Moon, held forever in each other’s orbit, like lovers, but never quite able to reach out and touch. And here, William Henry Davies’s beautiful poem, ‘The Moon’, explores their romance from the point-of-view of the Earth: ‘Thy beauty haunts me heart and soul / Oh, thou fair Moon, so close and bright / Thy beauty makes me like the child / That cries aloud to own thy light’.
But this highly romantic atmosphere is not all it seems. There is danger too. As Shakespeare warns us in Act 5 of Othello: ‘It is the very error of the moon / She comes more nearer earth than she was wont / And makes men mad.’
When I initially started planning and preparing the script of One Giant Leap, I didn’t want to make the piece too specifically about the astronauts. In my previous two choral works, Codebreaker and Malala, the focus had been very much on the inner-life of specific individuals - Alan Turing and Malala Yousafzai.
But as I read more about Neil Armstrong and watched interviews with him and those who knew him best, I became absolutely entranced by him. And so his personal involvement with the Apollo 11 mission became an increasingly significant part of the overall piece.
Armstrong was a very private man who never used two words when one would suffice. He was uncomfortable speaking in public and yet he became the most famous man on the planet virtually overnight. His was a mercurial, unknowable, almost mythical character. The greatest pilot of a generation of brave and gifted test pilots who pushed the boundaries of aviation after the Second World War that NASA drew from for their space program.
We feel the deep concern of Armstrong’s wife, Janet, as she watches the final launch preparations, and we hear Jack King’s famous countdown of the launch of Apollo 11. We also experience the unsettling strangeness of weightless flight on the journey to the Moon.
Perhaps it is because Armstrong never wasted a word in his life that the power of practically everything he said whilst on the Moon was so moving and poetic. When Armstrong says ’It's very different, but it's very pretty out here’, it really means something, it is worth a thousand words by any poet.
Sara Teasdale is a writer whose work I have a very close affinity to. I used four of her poems to tell the inner-story of Alan Turing in Codebreaker, and she reappears here at the end of One Giant Leap. This is both a celebration of the Apollo 11 mission and a hymn of praise to the Moon itself. ‘The Moon is a flower without a stem, The sky is luminous; Eternity was made for them, Tonight for us.’
One Giant Leap will receive its world premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on April 28, 2019, performed by Hertfordshire Chorus (who commissioned the work), London Orchestra da Camera, Eagle House School Choir, Coldfall School Choir and conductor David Temple. Buy tickets