There's a plaque on the moon. Did you know? I didn't. I just found out about it when engaged in that most productive activity in the whole catalogue of human activities, looking for something else. (Oh what magpie brains we are, hopping after one bright object, being diverted by another and then by another, leading lives of such perpetual distraction that when we near the end of them we wonder a. where they went and b. what we did with them (to which the answers are a. nowhere and b. ooh look over there.))
Anyway, there's a plaque on the moon, planted by Buzz "what sort of a name is that for an adult?" Aldrin and Neil "giant leap for mankind" Armstrong. And gosh it's a doozy.
Armstrong was wrong, by the way. Stepping on to the moon wasn't a giant leap for mankind. It was a quick shufti down a cul-de-sac. For after Buzz and Neil a few further missions returned to the moon to waning interest and no discernible purpose and then the whole business of putting people on to a barren bit of rock without air to breathe or water to drink or reason to be there was quietly shelved. It had only ever been a stunt.
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Nevertheless Nasa commemorated its visit to the moon in much the same spirit as my dog commemorates its visit to a lamppost. The plaque the astronauts planted is a urinary scribble, a We Woz Ere carved into a park bench. And it's remained on the moon these 49 years gathering irony.
The words of the We Woz Ere are as follows: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."
Who's it for? Who's meant to read it? Aliens? I doubt it. Few aliens I know of read English. And if aliens had travelled from distant galaxies I doubt they'd land on a small and barren moon when right next door there stands a large and fertile planet just begging to be pillaged. So the plaque is merely a boast aimed at any subsequent human visitors.
And it's a telling boast. The author or authors (it reeks of committeeness) were desperate to match a historic moment with sonorous words. What they achieved, even in so small a space, was an autobiography of our species and a stirring argument for not allowing us any further into space.
What got Buzz and Neil to the moon and back wasn't hope or prayer or belief. It was science. It was an exploitation of the demonstrable laws of physics as determined by the scientific method and the power of human reason. Yet when the authors of this plaque dated it they went straight to superstition. Being scientists they knew the universe to be 13 billion years old yet they chose to measure time from the date of birth of a middle-eastern Jew who claimed to be the son of god. How aliens would giggle.
Detectives are taught to recognise consciousness of guilt. They could hardly miss it in the words "We came in peace." The words are only there because we know we habitually come in war. Every fantasy movie about space and aliens involves fighting. Every one of those movies could be called Star Wars. For war is us. We are supremely bellicose. We come in peace only so long as no one opposes us.
And as for coming to the moon for all mankind, phooeyi. There was a space race on at the time between the States and the Soviet Union. To the victor went the spoils. The first thing Buzz and Neil did when they stepped on to the lunar surface was to plant a flag. Was it the flag of the UN? It was not. It was the Stars and Stripes and a raised finger to the Ruskies.
Unwittingly, then, the plaque tells everything about us: our braggart nature, our superstition, our belligerence, our tribalism, our mendacity and our habit of pretending we are nicer than we are. But my favourite part is the four facsimile signatures underneath the words. There's Buzz and Neil, of course, and the bloke who stayed in orbit round the moon, Michael Collins. But can you guess who else? Yep, bang right. It was the man who told the American people, "your president is not a crook," and who, just like his current successor in the Oval office, was both their president and a crook. Richard Nixon's honoured on the moon for ever. You couldn't make it up.