Of all the thoughts that came to mind as we marked the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the one that struck me most was the realization that more than half the people alive on the planet today hadn’t been born yet when Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap.”
That’s Armstrong’s footprint above on the left. And that’s Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in the middle saluting the American flag. Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Almost all the pictures on the first men on the moon feature Aldrin. That’s because only Armstrong had a camera and infrequently handed it off to Aldrin. On future flights both crewmen were given a camera.
Over on the right is a picture of the lunar module’s assent stage rising up from the moon carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back to link up with the command and service module where Michael Collins had been waiting for their return. Earth can be seen in the distance beyond the lunar module, small, blue and beautiful, rising over the lunar horizon.
There has been an awful lot of remembering these past few days. And an awful lot of hand-wringing over the fact that after six successful lunar landing missions ending in 1972, humans never returned to the moon. Or ventured out any further than the near earth orbit of the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.
I grew up following the space program and listening to Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Jules Bergman and Jay Barbree. Only Barbree is still with us. These were men, yes they were all men as were the astronauts of the day, who would enlighten us with the facts, feel free to express their emotions but otherwise leave us to form our own reactions.
Generally, we were as amazed and delighted as they were and we shared the experience as a nation and as a world. That left a major impression on my young mind, the first landing coming during my summer between high school and college. The three Americans toured the world in the year that followed. And they quickly discovered that their achievement was seen as more than the achievement of American technology. It was seen as an achievement for all people. A shared experience in the history of humanity.
Today too many of our reporters have turned into pundits even though most lack the gravitas to qualify them to voice their opinion. I have heard a lot of nonsense explaining that we haven’t returned to the moon because we are now living in such troubled times, with the nation divided, unable to afford such an undertaking for no discernible return.
In fact 1969 came as the nation was torn in active protest over the war in Vietnam and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were divided by civil disobedience over racial inequality and the rights of women. The year before had seen assassinations, riots, and the decision of an unpopular president to not stand for reelection. The costs of the space program as well as the wars and a wide range of social programs were born by a more progressive tax structure than what we have today where those who were achieving great wealth paid more to society.
And as far as discernible return, there have been countless numbers of studies showing the real economic returns from produced by an active national space program:
- No One Should Think That Money Spent on NASA is a Waste
- Increased funding for NASA would stimulate economy while keeping American industry strong
- Nasa Socio-Economic Impacts
- Space, The Final Economic Frontier
- From Medicine to Wi-Fi; Technical Applications of Astronomy to Society
So why haven’t we gone out there again, into the unknown to the moon or to mars? It’s a simple lack of vision. We are paralyzed by fear, unwilling to make any kind of long term decision, unable to set a goal that cannot be realized by the end of the next financial quarter or completed before the next election. Or to take a chance and set a goal we may not reach.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously set the goal for Apollo:
“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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We could use a little more of that spirit right about now.