Neil Armstrong and the Moon
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Dish. In it, a bunch of Australians running a radio telescope help relay pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon. At one point, one of them observes that the first moon walk was science’s chance to be “daring.”
After Armstrong died this week, I read a tweet that observed 24 human beings have walked on the moon. 17 are still alive. The youngest is 76. (Correction – the numbers are off. The actual numbers are worse. See the correct info in the comments – serves me right for failing to double check numbers off a tweet!)
The odds are quite good that none of them will live to see the 25th.
That makes me sad.
Even as we are seeing the amazing pictures coming from Mars, I keep looking up at the moon this week and wondering why we lost interest in that body so quickly.
Armstrong was a symbol of the efforts of thousands of people. He did not get to the moon on his own. Those thousands of people sent 22 more men to the lunar surface after Armstrong and Aldrin left. Then they stopped.
I don’t think they wanted to stop. I think they wanted to figure out how to build a base on the moon and begin the process of figuring out how to ensure we fragile humans could survive for months on a different celestial body.
They found other ways to explore space. The Shuttle. The International Space Station. Curiosity. All of these were grand endeavors that were (we learned) not without risk.
They were also not without expense and it seems the price tag of a permanent base on the moon is the biggest obstacle to overcome.
And that makes me sad because the price tag of a base on the moon is a fraction of what we have spent on a foolhardy military operation in Iraq. It is a fraction of what we have spent on subsidies for industries that don’t need them.
As of right now, there is no profit in space exploration and that is the problem. Private industry isn’t going to set up a base on the moon unless they can make money doing it. I’m sure Hilton would spend the billions needed to build a hotel on the moon if they thought anyone would stay there.
But, at least right now, that isn’t going to happen.
I’m tired of watching my government waste money. We all – liberal and conservative alike – are tired of it.
I don’t see that space exploration is any kind of waste. If we survive our awkward adolescence (as Carl Sagan put it), humanity will strike out for the stars one day.
But we won’t do it all at once. We have to spend some time living on the moon before we can live on Mars. We have to send people to Mars and back before we can have them live there. These are all steps in a process that, I think, is vital to the future of our species.
It also makes science exciting. It make science daring.
In a country that spends so much of its time finding ways to discredit scientific findings because we find them inconvenient or they don’t fit with our established world view, the moon landings were one moment where science was exciting. Science was daring.
Science continues to be exciting but we have ceased to be interested. A bunch of people were excited when Curiosity landed but are they still excited now? Or have they turned their attention back to Snooki’s new baby?
Would we all gather around the TV (or the internet) to watch someone new walk on the moon?
It is a sad fact that most of us associate that moon walk with Armstrong. I don’t want to belittle his accomplishment. He did an extraordinary thing.
Yet, the true accomplishment lay in the thousands (if not millions) of hours people spent figuring out how the hell to get him onto the moon. Armstrong knew that when he called what he’d done a “giant leap for mankind.” He knew that he was one tiny part of an amazingly complex endeavor.
Aside from velcro and microwave ovens, though, what do we have to show for that endeavor now? NASA is still functioning and doing many exciting things but none of the 24 men who walked on the moon will live to see the 25th.
We abandoned science just when it was getting daring.