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    A Rocket to the Moon! Remembering the Space Race Fifty Years On

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    Neil Clark
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    It's exactly fifty years ago since the Russians got to the moon first. Yes, that's right. The Russians.

    Well, at least that appeared to be the case in the film Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon, released in that wonderfully groovy Summer of Love in 1967.

    A whimsical and utterly charming international comedy about a space race in 19th century Britain, shot in glorious Eastman color and filmed in Ireland's stunningly picturesque Wicklow Mountains, Rocket to the Moon encapsulated the sunny optimism of the era in which it was made.

    "The music is a highlight and it is almost impossible to find, at times, a happier little film than this one is in spots," says one reviewer on IMDb.com.

    At the time the film (whose American title was Those Fantastic Flying Fools) was released in July 1967, there was of course a real-life "moon race" going on between the US and the USSR — and one that didn't involve Tsarist agents, Troy Donahue and Phineas T. Barnum.

    The Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite, (Sputnik, of course!) and put the first man (Yuri Gagarin) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space. They also put the first animal into orbit too — a little dog named Laika.

    Soviet achievements were being praised even by leading British Tory MPs.

    "Forty years ago the Soviet Union was a backward country, poor, illiterate, and agricultural. Today she is identified with prodigious feats of science and technology," enthused Aubrey Jones in 1961 in the Sunday Times.

    But the Americans, beaten in other areas, were determined to get to the moon first. President Kennedy proposed, in May 1961, that "before this decade is out" the US would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. "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," Kennedy said eighteen months later at Rice University.

    When Rocket to the Moon was released, we were in fact just two years away — to the very week — from the US achieving its goal — even though JFK sadly wasn't there to see it.

    The Cold War had "moved to the heavens," in the words of Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing. But weren't we better off seeing a space race rather than increased hostilities on earth? Back in the 1960s we were all — to paraphrase Oscar Wilde — looking at the stars, and our dreams were very big indeed.

    Fifty years ago, it seemed, as in the Victorian era — that all things were possible. A man on the moon. Supersonic passenger planes. The work-life balance sorted. Global equality. The eradication of terrible diseases. A genuine internationalism based on mutual respect between nations and cultures. There were still many problems, but the setbacks the US was experiencing in Vietnam, and the popular opposition to that war the world over were signs that imperialism had hit a brick wall.

    Growing detente between east and west, brought about because the US couldn't get its way in south-east Asia, led many to hope that the Cold War would end in a merging of two systems. Western countries were certainly becoming more socialistic — with full employment, generous welfare provision and an extension of public ownership the norm. The working man — and woman — had never had it so good, in east and west. Music and films reflected the "feel good" factor of the time. The number one record of fifty years ago was appropriately enough "All you need is love."

    So where did it all go wrong?

    The problem was that those who supported detente in the west were pushed aside by those who wanted to destroy the Soviet Union, and indeed any economic system which put the needs of the majority first. The 1970s were the apogee of progressive politics, with historically low levels of inequality, and historically high levels of social/public ownership, but the decade also witnessed the start of the neocon/neoliberal fight back. 

    We saw examples of this with the toppling of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and the restructuring of the Chilean economy by "The Chicago Boys" — and in the battles inside the Carter administration from 1977-80. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance wanted to strengthen detente, but the aggressive hawk Zbigniew Brzezinski — Carter's National Security adviser, persuaded the president to back Islamist "rebels" in Afghanistan in order to "bleed" the Soviet Union for "as much and as long as is possible." 

    Things got even worse under Ronald Reagan, who stepped up the program for aiding the "Mujahideen," leading to the birth of al-Qaeda. While in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, a Cold War warrior for the 1%, set about dismantling the equitable post-war economic settlement with glee. 

    The fall of communism at the very end of the 80s, cheered on even not just by the neo-cons, but by many "progressives" too, paved the way for a new, even more aggressive form of neo-liberalism and a series of brutal wars against independent nations by the US and its closest allies.

    The results have been truly catastrophic. Today, half the world's wealth is owned by just eight individuals, while the living standards of ordinary people continues to fall.

    "At home Euro-American policy elites — the least needy people the world has ever seen — are driving through a hard neo-liberal agenda in order to gnaw away at wages within their own territories." writes Robert Hunter Wade, professor of political economy.

    "Regime-change" wars — waged for the benefit of the elites — have destroyed whole countries, created a refugee crisis of biblical proportions and helped spread terrorism around the globe.

    We don't get films like Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon made any more. We get much darker artistic offerings, reflecting our more fearful, depressed times: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, Broadchurch and Nordic Noir films.

    But remembering the Swinging Sixties, the race to the moon, and the cheery optimism of those much happier days, shows us it doesn't have to be like this.

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    The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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    Western interventions, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, moon landing, regime change, socialism, music, Moon, movies, space exploration, culture, space, Sputnik-1, Space Race, Cold War, Laika, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Yuri Gagarin, John F. Kennedy, Valentina Tereshkova, United States, Soviet Union
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