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.
7 responses to “Neil Armstrong and the Moon”
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- September 18, 2012 -
I was just posting about space last night too.
The numbers are worse than you thought. Even though we sent 24 men to the moon, only 12 of them actually got to walk (or golf!) on it. Only 8 of them are left. This makes me very sad.
You see? I meant to look up the numbers to verify them (never trust numbers in a tweet) and then I didn’t. My bad. Thanks for the correction.
Yeah, when I was writing about Neil last night I started wondering just how many people had been on the moon so I used Wikipedia as my source. Then when I saw your numbers I started doubting the accuracy of Wikipedia, but further googling today turned up the 24/12 numbers. So this just means Wikipedia is more accurate than Twitter. Sometimes.
We geeks cheered at a manned lunar mission because it was super-cool. It fired up imaginations, took America and the whole world in a positive direction, and allowed for all manner of great advancements.
But we digeeks weren’t the ones who were paying to put three guys and their entire life-support apparatus up there, and then try to get them back safely. Congress was the one paying for that. And Congress put a man on the moon in 1969 for the same reason the Russians launched Sputnik in 1960, to establish technical and scientific superiority on the world stage, to intimidate people without being obviously military or warlike about it.
It’s impossible to address the Apollo program outside of the Soviet threat. There would never have been an ambitious program to show off American muscle if it weren’t for Finlandization. Or Communist Asia. And we wouldn’t have chosen to land men on the moon, if the Soviets hadn’t scared the bejeezus out of us with Sputnik, drifting over America, sometimes beeping at us to let us know it was there and sometimes silent and undetectable.
What killed the Apollo program? The friggin’ golf shot. At that, we had obviously made our point and we were just doing a series of increasingly preposterous victory laps in our moon-buggy. Spending that kind of money, and taking those kinds of risks, were no longer in the national interest.
To put people on the moon again, we need to have a scientific reason, an economic reason, and also a political reason.
I don’t disagree with you at all. I simply believe that all three of those reasons do still exist. And yet it doesn’t matter. And that makes me sad.
I recall back then I must have been about seven or eight years old when we were actually pulled out of class to go and watch live coverage of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon. We all saw such huge prospects for the future and every kid in that class room wanted to be an astronaught. In a Fringe Festival theater project I was working on later, i did some research on the moon missions and to my dismay, much of it was motivated by the political climate of the time. Getting to the moon before the Russians was of critical strategic importance. The technological boom and scientific discovery was a by-product of it. That is what really makes me sad. So little is ever done just for the sake of enlightenment. I don’t understand why people aren’t blown away by close up pictures of the rings of Saturn or learning that Mars is geologically active. It is hard not to be disappointed by the present we have been dealt when we saw such an amazing future in the deck.