It has been 50 years since the moon landing; a result of science, technology and competition between two superpowers of the time – Russia and the US. Evoking much excitement worldwide, the first historic step on the moon was taken by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 (21st local time).
He was accompanied by Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 spaceflight. This operation is defined as “A milestone, a giant step forward for mankind.” Since 1969, this has been a well-known tale of grandeur and accomplishment to the young and old. Yet, we are unaware of how it was embraced, viewed and interpreted by Sri Lankans back in the day and how it was projected through media in ways that retained the inquisitiveness of the Eastern readership.
It is safe to say that the enthusiasm and curiosity about the programme sustained in the East as vigorously as in the West. This became visible to me through records of speeches delivered at public halls such as Lionel Wendt from professionals like Prof. Kurt R. Stelly, a member of the moon travel organising committee. Translations and extracts of these speeches had been catered to the public via media.
Proving science was not a completely alien subject to the average brown man in the ’60s, such articles have answered many questions that lay unknown to the public. To name a few, the reasons for selecting the ocean in launching the vessel had been said to be diverse. In a bid to reduce effects of any technical difficulty, they had opted for safety which the sea offers by covering 70% of the world. Another factor had been the absence of large strips of land in the US as in Russia.
The reason for launching a rocket instead of a satellite had also been pondered upon. The lack of gravity in the moon (1/6th of earth’s gravity) was calculated to obstruct the satellite’s approach
The reason for launching a rocket instead of a satellite had also been pondered upon. The lack of gravity in the moon (1/6th of earth’s gravity) was calculated to obstruct the satellite’s approach. In addition, it would have been impossible to instantaneously transfer photographs taken by a satellite without manual assistance. Hence, Apollo 11 was built to hold up to three individuals, by employing latest technological expertise of the time.
Through a detailed translation of Stelly’s speech by journalist Walter Jayawardene, it was clear that the readers had been offered a thorough account of the benefits of moon landing. Direct advantages had been things such as contentment gained by succeeding the previously impossible, the ability to observe the earth from a close distance and bringing back a soil sample from the moon for further experiments. Indirect benefits have had long-term effects; the automated self-checkup systems developed for astronauts, inventions like the telephone box and other machinery needed for the journey had in turn paved way to improve communication and healthcare sectors. Similarly, knowledge on climate change and meteorology had increased with numerous experiments conducted for this journey. With newly-gained predictability of climate change, fields such as agriculture, fisheries and the world economy had developed in leaps and bounds. Since experiments on space travel had been mostly conducted under the sea, the scope in studying deep waters too had improved. Lengthy articles explaining all these minute details had covered a number of newspapers of their July editions in 1969.
The Ceylon Observer had given a countdown, photographs and details captioned ‘Exclusive to the Observer from the New York Times Service. Daily Mirror had published a series of articles titled ‘Space and You.’ Proud headlines declaring Arthur C. Clarke, a Sri Lankan resident, was the first to predict the need of a space station, a Sinhala poem titled ‘Sanda Athi Lowa’ by Upali Keerthi Siri, published in Sri Lankadeepaya and numerous sci-fi short stories built around moon landing, didn’t fail to catch my eye.
The articles had taken an interesting turn with the return of the heroes to earth. In celebration, picture galleries and biographies of the three dignitaries had been displayed on front covers. Picturesque posters had taken up full pages. Discourses on the possibility of life on other planets, the future steps to be taken with regards to space travel, discussions on civilization and agricultural possibilities on the moon had been plastered across pages. Doubts on the authenticity of the landing had already started taking form, where they had suggested checking for the occurrence of earthquakes on the moon through the equipment Armstrong fixed on his landing.
Taking a step further in making the discourse Sri Lankan, some articles had tried to give religious readings to this scientific achievement. Some had tried to connect it with the technological power that legendary kings like Ravana had said to have possessed. Astrologers had travelled to the extent of marketing their advertisements, stressing on how the moon landing may affect the people. It is amusing how the safe return of the three men had been accredited to the positioning of their lucky stars. Coming back to the present, these recordings of history are without a doubt invaluable at a time when enthusiasm for space travel among world economies seems to lag. In our own oriental perspective, with accordance to our beliefs, even the most average Sri Lankan had been exposed to ways of decoding science and understanding this marvel of an achievement. It is necessary to say that the role media has played in it is astounding and exceptionally-significant.