NPF: THE SNAPSHOT

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 27th, 2010 by Ed

When the first humans set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11), many people know that they left behind a plaque and an American flag to clarify that We conquered space and not You. Space aficionados probably know some other neat trivia about the event, but I've rarely encountered anyone who knows the story of the most interesting artifact left behind by the astronauts.

The U.S. collected 73 "goodwill messages" from nations around the world and, showing off some technology that was new at the time, engraved every word on a tiny silicon disc. If you look closely, the tiny blocks of text are faintly noticeable in this picture, with a 50-cent piece for reference:

Thankfully, NASA's archives contain a photocopy, albeit of mediocre quality, of the full text of the tiny messages. It is an amazing time capsule of the world in 1969. Scrolling through the document reveals a parade of CIA-supported right-wing dictators, Soviet client state puppets, and the combination of earnest revolutionaries and genuine crackpots governing African nations less than 10 years old. I can't help but point out a few highlights.

We have craziness, courtesy of Liberian president W.V.S. Tubman:

We salute these explorers of outer space and pray for their security and safety while we admire their courage and intrepidity. I ask them to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there. If they do not, it is my desire that this message be one of greetings from the people of Liberia and myself to the Moon, Nebulous satellite of the Earth.

Is "nebulous" the right word there? L.S. Senghor, the president of Senegal, gives us the flavor of the late '60s with a line straight out of a blaxploitation film:

This is a message from black militants. It is a message of human solidarity, a message of peace.

I…see. The Polish Ambassador offers tidings simply drenched in the sentimentality and human feeling for which Soviet Bloc governments were so well known:

Although we are not suggesting any message from the Polish Head of State, please be assured that the achievements of the U.S. astronauts are followed by us with great interest, appreciation and best wishes for the success in their endeavor.

But seriously, a few of the messages are remarkably lyrical, using the kind of language that modern political leaders have abandoned in the continuing effort to dumb it down:

The Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago acclaim this historic triumph of science and the human will. It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world. (Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago)

I would hope that when this passenger from the sky leaves man's imprint on lunar soil, he will feel how proud we are to belong to the generation which has accomplished this feat. I hope also that he would tell the Moon how beautiful it is when it illuminates the nights of the Ivory Coast. I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up there. May his word, descending from the sky, find in the Cosmos the force and light which will permit him to convince humanity of the beauty of progress in brotherhood and peace. (Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast)

We feel admiration and confidence toward all those who have cooperated in this performance, and especially towards the three courageous men who take with them our hopes, as well as those, from all nations, who were their forerunners or who will follow them in space. With awe we consider the power with which man has been entrusted and the duties which devolve on him. We are deeply conscious of our responsibility with respect to the tasks which may be open to us in the universe, but also to those which remain to be fulfilled on this earth, so to bring more justice and more happiness to mankind. (Baudouin, King of Belgium)

Pope Paul VI also contributed the oddly appropriate-for-the-occasion Psalms 8, although we may safely assume that its author did not have lunar conquest in mind.

Overall, I love the story of this disc and its text as quasi-time capsule from a very different time. For those of us who were not alive to see this happen these words provide valuable context for one of the most interesting eras in history, politically speaking, representing the peak of both the Cold War and American power. For you old timers who saw this happen live, hopefully these well-wishes lead to a positive trip down memory lane.