The Apollo 11 moonshot was only the brightest object in the firmament of 1969, a very busy year in space at the height of the technological rivalry between the superpowers. The USSR sent 82 missions out there, including a significant landmark: the first docking of two manned craft in space (Soyuz 5 and Soyuz 4), and the first transfer of crew between them. The Soviets were in a hurry to score, so they did it by a spacewalk. The Americans did a proper, airtight transfer two months later, on one of the 41 missions they launched in 1969. That’s half as many as the Soviets, but they got political bang for buck with Apollo 11. In causally related news, David Bowie released Space Oddity, a pessimistic hit about a helpless spaceman in orbit in a tin can.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world in India, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was founded with admirable clarity of purpose. In the words of Vikram Sarabhai: “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight.” (Now, with the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions, ISRO has scaled up.)
It was a busy year not only in space, but on earth, too. In the realm of culture, 1969 saw the release of Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, a multiple-payload launch on a shoestring budget, of the sort that ISRO launch vehicles take to space. The state-funded film is perceived to have raised the curtain on the New Cinema movement, and introduced Suhasini Mulay and Amitabh Bachchan. The latter, who served as the narrator, was heard but not seen.
In the West, American Zoetrope was founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, which would produce acclaimed movies like Apocalypse Now (1979), American Graffiti (1973) and Kagemusha (1980). Mario Puzo’s The Godfather reached bookshops, and Denton Cooley implanted the first artificial heart. The social, political and technological changes seen in the Fifties and Sixties came to a head, changing lives and attitudes and creating countercultures. The contraceptive pill, cleared for use by health authorities in the early Sixties, had been eagerly embraced and changed public attitudes to sex. An activity that traditionally spelt consequences and responsibility was now about experimentation and freedom.
Pictures of the crowd at Woodstock in 1969 are portraits of the Pill at work. Ten years earlier, a similar gathering would have looked like a family values conference. Fifty years after, almost all liberal nations have seen a loosening of traditional family structures, their separation from religious sanction and the presence of women in public life and the workforce, including the military. Significant political and social changes were made possible by the pill, but 1969 also signalled the beginning of the blowback, with the publication of Barbara Seaman’s The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which launched women’s health feminism.
The modern LGBT movement and gay pride were born one night in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, with violent demonstrations against a police raid. Gay pride parades worldwide commemorate the resistance, which first radicalised the movement. Coincidentally, HIV entered the US in 1969, with the death of a teenager identified as Robert R, owing to an unknown syndrome. In the course of research into a plague mowing down homosexual men in the early Eighties, Robert R was identified as the earliest documented US victim of HIV/AIDS.
In 1969, three years after countercultural Harvard professor Timothy Leary urged the world to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” he won a significant victory in his campaign for legal mind alteration, which is now bearing fruit with the legalisation of marijuana in several jurisdictions. The US Supreme Court agreed that the law under which he had been arrested for possession in 1965 was unconstitutional, and overturned a 30-year prison sentence. To celebrate, Leary declared that he would run against Ronald Reagan for governor of California, and joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a Bed-In in Canada.
It was a watershed year for the Beatles, who released their Abbey Road album, widely regarded to be their best ever, and performed their last concert, a poorly attended and confused gig on the rooftop of Abbey Records in London. John and Yoko married and repaired directly to a bed-in in Amsterdam, while Led Zeppelin released their first album. Most of the world was waking up to change. In politics, Charles de Gaulle bowed out in favour of Georges Pompidou, Yasser Arafat took over the reins of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar al-Gaddafi gained Lybia in a bloodless coup. Indian politics changed direction as the Congress split into the Syndicate and the Indicate (named for Indira Gandhi), and banks were nationalised, cementing the age of socialism.
The age of fast communications was beginning. In October, the first message was sent over Arpanet, the ancestor of the internet, and Unix was almost ready to roll — its philosophy lives in almost all popular operating systems, including MacOS and Android. In Toulouse, the first Concorde was flight-tested, and the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, which came to symbolise international commercial flight, took to the air. So did Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and about the same time, the US began Operation Breakfast, the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia. And in a grim counterpoint, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre two days after Sesame Street launched. A day after that, the government complained about a “small and unelected elite” in the media attempting to undermine national unity. Sounds familiar?
Lots of other reality-altering stuff was afoot in 1969. The next year, Flying Dutchman Records released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox by the new blues poet Gil Scott-Heron, featuring the still-popular track Whitey on the Moon. It challenged the perception of the space race as a prestige match, with the sobering observation that the sole purpose of two national projects, fuelled by budgets the size of education and health allocations, was to put some white guys on the moon.
Governments have had no appetite for manned missions to the moon and the planets in the last 50 years because there’s no percentage in it. China, India and the US have shown an interest in missions based on instruments and rovers because they are financially prudent. While manned space missions are essential for developing indigenous technology, putting a man on the moon would make sense only if there were a habitable base there, where human decision-making and initiative would be required. At present, such a project is too expensive for any nation to contemplate.
This article appeared in the print edition witf the headline ‘A Space Oddity and Yesterday’s News’