When I was a kid, I thought the Apollo Moon missions were launched to celebrate my birthday.
Okay, not really, but imagine what an exciting summer it was for a kid to have Independence Day, followed ten days later by his seventh birthday, and just two days after that by the launch of a spaceship that landed the first man on the Moon.
I’m pretty sure I heard Neil Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for Mark … one giant leap for Mark kind.”
Apollo 11 returned to Earth ten days after my birthday, so overall it was a red letter July. I had just one goal back then: to be an astronaut, to explore the planets and maybe someday meet green alien babes like Captain Kirk did. (Actually, it was a few more years later before the babe issue came to mind.)
It came as a shock to me, years later, to learn all the Apollo flights didn’t happen in July. In fact, only one other did: Apollo 15, which went up in 1971. By 1972 it was all over; we’d beaten the Russians to the Moon, and the politicians in Washington thought that was what it was all about, so they cut funding for the program. I was ten years old.
I’ve hated politicians ever since.
Turns out you have to know math to be an astronaut, which was pretty much it for me; the closest I ever got was writing myself and my friends into planet hopping space stories, which were about as bad as you might expect from a teenaged geek. Many years later I was shocked to learn my daughters didn’t know the events of the movie “Apollo 13” actually happened.
It’s ancient history, to them. I lived it.
Seriously, it’s been forty years since Neil Armstrong landed on a surface dustier than my basement floor, then flubbed his carefully prepared line? He was supposed to say it was a small step for A man. Can’t blame him for that, though. Imagine what must have been going through his mind:
“Okay, we didn’t sink like some predicted … but is this first step going to be into Lunar quicksand? Is that single rocket built by the lowest bidder going to get us back? Is a micro meteor or sunstorm going to kill me in the next instant? Will I get my picture on the cover of Life? Is that darn Buzz Aldrin going to try to shove me out of the way and reach the surface first?”
Okay, probably none of that was at the front of his mind. He was probably thinking, to paraphrase an early astronaut: “Lord, please don’t let me screw this up.”
We spent a lot of resources getting to the Moon. Money, people, time, expertise. What it really all just to beat the Russians? Sure, we got a lot of innovation out of it, technology that’s done everything to making kitchen chores easier to protecting my butt inside burning buildings – but is there nothing more? Couldn’t we have invented all that stuff without endangering those brave men?
The retreat from space exploration – going from dipping our toe into interstellar space to circling endlessly around our own little blue marble – is one of the worst things that’s happened to America, and to the human race.
Many people are against manned space exploration, to this day. “It can all be done with machines, and a lot cheaper. Why spend the money? Why risk the people?”
Please. Risk the people? Have you turned on cable TV lately? Risking your life to dig some information out of the surface of another planet is a lot more worthwhile than any number of other “extreme” activities that occupy our time these days. Have you ever wondered why all these people are doing those crazy things?
For that matter, have you wondered about all the exploration shows, on channels like Discovery and History? People are retracing the steps of famous explorers, or going off to live in the wilds of Alaska and Africa. What is it that makes people do such things? Is the answer to why a person climbs Mount Everest as simple as “Because it’s there”?
In a word: Yes.
We haven’t run out of places to explore on Earth – not quite. But we’ve gone into a decline since the heyday of Apollo, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I believe the human race has, bred into it, a hunger for exploration. That hunger must be fed, every bit as much as our hunger for food and shelter. Without that discovery, that learning of new things, we sink into a funk. It’s the feeling that we’re not progressing, not going anywhere. What’s the point?
In addition, people need a job -- a purpose, a challenge, whether minor or major. (See what happens to most lottery winners?) We need both hope for the future and a fire in our belly, and nothing fits that like the spirit of exploration. It’s what brought us across oceans, deserts and mountains. Without it we’d still be a little band in deep Africa somewhere, jumping at our own shadows.
We can’t all go along to set up a Moon base, or look for life on Mars, or seek water on a moon of Jupiter. But when one of us goes where no one has gone before, we all go. We thrill to their adventures because adventuring is what the human race does best.
The poor will always be with us, along with the sick, and those disturbed few who want to bring the rest of us down. It’s still our responsibility to help those who can be helped, just as it’s our responsibility to let individuals climb their own ladders, pursue their own happiness. Surely something discovered during our exploration of space will help us in those tasks, but we also need exploration for the sake of exploration – seeking out knowledge not so we gain profit, but just so we know.
That’s why we need to get back into space.
Not that you need me to tell you this. John F. Kennedy, in the midst of all the other challenges his administration faced, understood the value of tackling the difficult, rather than settling for the easy:
“Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice Play Texas?” (Hey, he had a sense of humor!)
“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.”