We enjoy being inspired, dazzled, and entertained—and a journey to the stars does all three quite nicely. Our forays into outer space, whether manned or not, have been staples of American political discussions, social history, and pop culture since the 1950’s, and our awed reactions to their technology, danger, and adventure likely reached its apogee with the first landing on the moon 50 years ago—today.
Perhaps it was simply the seemingly human scale of the quest that so captured our imaginations; on a clear night a full moon seems almost close enough to touch. We could, therefore, somehow manage to comprehend a trip to the moon as we will likely never be able to quite grab ahold of another different trip outside of earth’s atmosphere. The distances to other worlds beyond that pale orb in the dark sky are outside the easy reach of our imaginations, and no wide-eyed child will ever squeal that they can see Martian pioneers strolling about when they look through a backyard telescope at night. Pinpricks of light do not inspire our wonder in quite the same way.
I watched the “giant leap for mankind” on a black and white television in my grandmother’s room upstairs, and I was agog at the idea that humans were stepping out onto the moon’s surface while I watched. I was not the only one glued to a television that night, watching the redoubtable Walter Cronkite break into a grin when word first came back that Neil Armstrong had planted his feet on the lunar surface. It is estimated that 650 million other people watched as well—a worldwide audience united in wonder.
We now celebrate the daring accomplishment of the Apollo 11 mission, but we also forget just how dangerous this endeavor was for the astronauts. We learned only many years later that President Nixon had a speech prepared in case Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong perished on the moon’s surface, and the near-catastrophe of the Apollo 13 mission the following year was a sobering reminder that space travel succeeded at the thin margin between careful preparation and plain old good luck. Exploration of any sort carries many risks, and being shot into the cold void between the planets atop what is, in essence, a stupendously large explosive device requires more daring than most of us can readily imagine.
There is some discussion now of returning to the moon soon or later—or perhaps finding some other distant world upon which to trod. I do not believe it will be anyway near the same as it was in 1969. We are more jaded than we once were, and I suspect our awe will be tempered by our apparently uncontrollable urges to now criticize and denigrate those who presume to be our heroes. Our cynical attitude toward those in whom we place our trust today traps them in the thoroughly unenviable position of trying to be role models and exemplars for a nation and media that now seems more intent than ever at celebrating dysfunction and dissent. Attempts at heroism might be even more dangerous than actual space travel in 2019.
Moreover, we are now preoccupied with matters both supremely terrestrial and dully quotidian, and our gee-whiz wonder over new technologies is often counterbalanced by our well-warranted suspicions regarding their unintended consequences. America’s overall faith in science and scientists has likely not been this low since the Middle Ages, and thinking about technology today invariably fills us with both hope and dread.
Never has the phrase “double-edged sword” been more fraught with meaning.
Artificial Intelligence is amazing, but we worry about our machines outsmarting humanity. DNA manipulation may provide new cures for old diseases, or it may create dangerous or harmful mutations. Robots are amazing; however, they could replace many millions of human workers and leave breadwinners without the wages needed to buy that bread for themselves and their families. Ever more powerful computing provides us with convenience and entertainment while it simultaneously robs us of our privacy and peace of mind. Genetically modified foods may help to feed the hungry, but they might also poison our bodies and destroy our planet’s ecosystem.
Before we spend a lot of money we don’t have on another trip into outer space that we don’t really need, perhaps we need to learn to better manage our own planet, the technologies that sometimes seem beyond our control, and our governmental systems that often seem thoroughly disconnected from the needs of the governed. Exploring the moon or elsewhere in space could be an amazing adventure. However, we today have enough challenges right here on earth to keep us well occupied for many years to come, and we can better use our brainpower to help billions across the globe discover happier, healthier, and safer futures for themselves.
Until that day comes when we are again ready and able to escape the grasp of our planet’s gravity, we can still gaze up at the night sky and ponder our place and purpose—as we continue hurtling through the limitless darkness that envelopes us all.