Dad watched from his recliner. I sat in an armchair with footstool that once belonged to my grandmother.
She died earlier that year, so the legacy joined the odd assortment of furniture in my parents’ home.
“Mary! Mary!” My father called. Mother was in the other end of the house cleaning up supper or perhaps working a crossword puzzle. “He’s about to walk on the moon!” On July 20, 1969, I was home. I had graduated from Texas A&M in May and would not report for active duty with the U.S. Army until November.
Sharing this historical moment with my parents is a treasure I will always remember. None of us in the den, like Walter Cronkite, were exactly sure what Neil Armstrong said as he stepped onto the lunar surface.
Armstrong admitted in an interview I watched Sunday that perhaps he just flubbed the line. Every school child knows, or should know, that he said, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Unless you lived through the space race that gave our quest for the moon a jingoistic appeal, you are unlikely to understand what fascination space held in the public mind.
We glued ourselves to televisions for each launch. We mourned each death. We celebrated each triumph.We – Americans, scientists and humanity – also reaped huge rewards from the billions invested in the space program.
Former NASA flight director Glynn Lunney told The Guardian the technological abundance of the 21st Century trickled-down straight from Apollo to the rest of us. “Apollo really did drive our industry,” Lunney said.
“We were asking people to do things that were probably 10 or 20 years faster than they otherwise would have done. And they knew it. They stepped up to it and succeeded. Today’s cell phones, wireless equipment, iPads and so on are a result of the fact that the country did this hi-tech thing and created this large portfolio of available technologies.”
Apollo went to the moon six times. Then we stopped going there like it was a vacation destination that no longer held any attraction for us. Certainly, public boredom played a role. Successful mission followed successful mission with only the near disaster of Apollo 13 to relieve the tedium.
NASA became NASCAR without the crashes. People also found other interests. The chorus of those who begrudged NASA its budget also gained volume. They correctly pointed out that the poor needed help.
Veterans returning from Vietnam needed to be cared for and educated. Highways needed to be built. Did we really need to spend all this money on space? Another factor could perhaps be labeled the law of unintended consequences.
On the way back from the moon, we fell in love with ourselves. Perhaps you remember two key photographs – “Blue Marble” by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt and “Earth Rise” by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968.
These images challenged how we viewed just about everything. American poet Archibald MacLeish, influenced by these visions of the whole Earth from space, penned an essay in the New York Times, as Apollo 8 was heading home in December 1968, pointing out the eternal loveliness of such pictures of Earth from space.
For MacLeish, these images suddenly revealed us all as “brothers who know now they are truly brothers… riders on the Earth together.” Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart described the impact of looking back at Earth from space in numerous public addresses.“
Hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see,” he recounted. “And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful,” he remembered of his view of Earth.
“You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?’” Fifty years later, a Kumbaya moment in the Middle East eludes us.
We must also confront a new threat euphemistically called Climate Change. Kate Marvel writing in Scientific American noted: “This is how we sometimes talk about climate change: we’re doomed, the apocalypse is coming, the end of the world is nigh. Don’t get me wrong: climate change is an overwhelmingly horrific thing. It will lead—it already is leading—to massive economic damage, desperate refugees, and the loss of things we love. But it’s fundamentally different from an asteroid impact or zombie plague.”
Those who live on the high ground can look dispassionately at the fate of a few million coastal villagers if the average temperature does climb 2 degrees by 2030 and icebergs start breaking off and melting.
As Marvel points out, the comfort of those who survive the initial effects of climate change will be short-lived. All of us are on the same “Blue Marble” and we need to figure out what to do. Emission abatements that do not include the Chinese and Third World polluters accomplish little and wreck our economy.
There is even a chance that if everyone joins the party, it will not significantly impact what is happening since perhaps 90 percent of the ecological damage is not caused by man.
I think the best place for us to place our energy and our money is the space program. We must think in terms of evacuating the planet, not by next Saturday, but strive to relocate enough of the population to other planets where they will prosper so the remnant can survive here before we burn the place up.
Perhaps the first interplanetary colonists won’t lift off for decades, and trips to other solar systems will not occur for 100s of years, but they will not happen unless we realize that we must commit to those journeys.
We have two good reasons to make the investment. Mankind is running out of time on this planet and the technological advancements we will make in the space effort will impact our present in ways we can not imagine.
Mankind never did take that giant leap Neil Armstrong spoke about. We’ve waited 50 years, I don’t think starting now will be rushing things.
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