Blast-off to Bognor - by Phillip Jones

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In 1975, the Americans and Soviets launched a joint space mission. The encapsulating moment of this enterprise occurred just after the two orbiting spacecraft docked, a soviet Cosmonaut and an American Astronaut pushed their arms through their respective airlocks and joined hands to form a symbolic bridge across the iron curtain. The timing of this event was of course pre-set, and in the run up to the mission, NASA did some calculations and announced that the great pressing of the flesh would occur high above the British seaside resort of Bognor Regis.

In the days leading to blast-off, Bognor made the most of its 15 minutes of fame. Council leaders came on the radio in a vain attempt to promote their town, but couldn't get a word in edgeways as the journalists were more intent on making cheap music hall jokes about the resort. Unfortunately, there was a technical hitch and the shaking of hands occurred not above Bognor, but high above the town of Metz in northern France.

Burning Ambition

Why did this 'and finally' news piece fuel my imagination? Even at the age of ten, I clearly remember being tickled by the absurdness of an English seaside resort being linked with the space race. But there was more to it than that. Up until then I, like all small boys at the time, had a passionate interest in the Apollo rockets. I'd done the usual things, read the Ladybird books, dowsed my Joe 90 car in burning lighter fuel and run around the garden singing 'Fanfare for the Common Man'. But really it was all a bit abstract, it all took place on grainy footage from the moon or from countries which seemed just as far away. My only direct contact with the space race was the daily ritual of listening to my mother complaining that the non stick frying pan burnt the bacon.

So when Bognor became linked with the Apollo-Soyuz mission, I may have pretended to join in with the sophisticated adult laughter, but really I was jealous of those boys on the south coast, I wanted to live under the flight path of rockets. Thus going to Bognor became a stated ambition of mine. But unlike Sheffield United winning the cup, this was an ambition which was all too easily realisable. Perhaps that's why I haven't made it there yet, it's the fear of that old chestnut 'the pathos of fulfilment' which stops me. But for a long time I've realised that the significance of my visit to Bognor has grown and that in some sense it has taken on the stature of a pilgrimage.

Staring at the Cosmos

The analogies between space and religion are all too numerous, the cult of Yuri Gagarin or the fact that astronauts discover God easier than any useful scientific data are just two that easily spring to mind. But such obvious connections between space travel and God don't really interest me. Having said that the events linking Bognor to the Apollo-Soyuz mission do have parallels to many aspects of religious pilgrimage.
In medieval times pilgrimages were made to sites where saints were buried or perhaps where they had performed miracles, and the pilgrims made their journeys, not only to request a saints intervention in their lives, but also as a way of rekindling their faith. Often only a few people witnessed the miracle and it may have been forgotten for a generation before it became a widespread cult. Obviously miracles were performed by mythical, out of this world characters, but often they occurred in humble places and pilgrims were drawn to these places because God had literally come down to Earth.
All too easy parallels can be drawn between the events I've described above and these aspects of medieval religious pilgrimage. Whilst I don't regard spacemen shaking hands hundreds of miles above a seaside town as even a miracle of science, it does for me represent a personalisation of an almost mythical technological act. The fact that the handshake didn't in the end take place over Bognor, seems perversely appropriate in these sceptical times.

As a child I thought by the year 2000 that not only would I be married with two kids, but that we would be saving up for a holiday on Venus. The lack of offspring and spouse doesn't really bother me, but the fact that food hasn't been replaced by taste replicating pills is a constant source of disappointment. That vision of a shinny future that was so prevalent in the seventies and inspired me to become a scientist, has now been replaced by dark predictions of eco disaster. Whilst of course I don't believe that science and technology are always for the good of all mankind, I miss that silver spandex coated optimism and I want a bit of it back. Whilst going to Bognor Regis and looking for evidence of an non-event may look like an exercise in cheap irony. I hope that on the contrary, meeting people who remember what they were doing when spacemen shook hands, will dispel some of the easy cynicism of the nineties.

The Pilgrimage

Before going to Bognor, I hope to have made a number of contacts with people who remember the Apollo-Soyuz mission. With this in mind, I have posted messages on a number of Bognor Regis bulletin boards . On the day, I hope to meet and talk with these people, but I'll also try and find any mementos of the events of 1975. But it seems likely that this will be futile search, so I may have to widen the net to include any evidence for the influence of space travel. I intend to make a photographic record of any evidence I find. My tale will take the loose form of a scientific lecture, which will be given on the day in a community hall in Bognor and will of course be open to the public.

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