I originally posted this back in 2009, on the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Today, with SpaceX and Orion under development, space seems a little closer for mankind than it did six years ago. But it feels like we’re taking tentative steps over ground we’ve already covered when we should be boldly striding into the unknown. So these thoughts still feel relevant on this day, when three men made us citizens of the universe. And they’ll keep being relevant on this day every year until we reclaim that citizenship.
Forty years ago today, three men some 240,000 miles from home completed one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human race.
Forty years later, we’ve pissed it all away.
I was born too late to fully experience America’s space age. I have vague memories of feeling the ground shake from Saturn V rockets launching a full thirty miles away, but I missed out on that rush of hope and excitement as we watched first Mercury, then Gemini, and then Apollo. And I can’t imagine having lived through that time and being able to shrug it off and put it behind you, to say, “OK, we got to the moon, that’s nice, shut her down, boys.” Once you reach the heavens, how can you possibly be happy to walk the ground simply remembering you’d been there?
That we as a people could have become jaded at the idea of people walking on another planet speaks not only to a dearth of imagination, but to a dearth of aspiration. The moon should have been a stepping stone, not the end of the journey. But we’re too busy to lift our eyes from the cost of gas or how much we pay in taxes to embrace what humanity is capable of achieving if it simply tries. And we’ve become cheapened as a species because of it.
The death of the Apollo program should make you mad. The lack of vision in the American space program since then should make you furious. In the flush of the first Apollo landing, NASA talked of being on Mars by the early 90s. Now there’s doubt we can even get back to the moon in ten years. Ten years. That’s how long it took us to go from no space program to landing on the moon. It’s criminal that we can’t get back in the same amount of time. It’s obscene that we don’t seem to want to even try.
Some will point to the space shuttle as a big step, but that was a weak place-holder at best, the equivalent of perfecting a ship that did really well sailing along the coast while the New World went unexplored, with Columbus being told it was enough that he just got there.
And beyond silly things like pride and hope, there’s simple practicality. This planet isn’t going to last forever. And we’re already straining its capacity to the limit. We need to get off of it if the human race is going to survive. As Robert Heinlein said, “The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” Surely we’ve come far enough along to avoid the same fate as the dinosaurs.
But come this time next year, after the final space shuttle mission has ended, we won’t even be putting people into space anymore. There’s even talk of de-orbiting the space station in ten years or so. We’ll be sitting here on the ground staring up into space and remembering a time when we used to be brave enough to go there, even if it meant failure from time to time. Maybe we’ll have that cheaper gas, those lower taxes, but we’ll also have moldering memories instead of dreams.
JFK said “We choose to go to the moon, and do these other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Perhaps it’s better he didn’t live to see an America where we’d rather do the easy things.
So the next time you look at the moon, remember that we’ve been there. That once this country dared to do the possible and was so damn good at it, it made it mundane. That once we went to a desolate piece of rock a quarter of a million miles away and made a part of it forever human. And that we should go back there, and not let it be simply a destination, but the beginning of a new journey. That we should take that small step we made forty years ago and truly turn it into a giant leap.