Fifty years and two days ago, I was glued to the TV, watching the greatest adventure in human history unfold when Apollo 11 put the first humans on the moon.
It was a far cry from the disappointing days when I watched the Vanguard rocket failures to send a satellite into orbit. Finally, the Army was successful. NASA took over the venture into space, even though military rockets such as Atlas and Titan were used.
At last, I thought when the Eagle had landed, we’re really on our way. I was (and am) a big fan of science fiction. Thus, I was among those who had a skewed, light-speed notion of how rapidly the space program would progress. If we could go from the Wright Flyer to Explorer 1 in half a century, how far can manned space flight go in the 50 years after Apollo 11?
Not nearly as far as our dreams can take us. Wishes are free. Space travel is not.
Apollo 11 represented the pinnacle of American technology. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center – at One Tranquility Base, Huntsville, Ala. – is extraordinary. It has an Apollo capsule and a full-size mockup of a Saturn V rocket, among many other wonders.
When I examined the Apollo capsule and its equipment a few decades after Neil Armstrong planted the first human footprint on the moon, I was amazed how much of the stuff – electronic and otherwise – seemed rather crude in comparison to today’s high-tech. Junky, in fact.
Well, it was made from scratch, but it was indeed moon-worthy. We’ve come a long way.
The laptop I use is far superior to the sum of all the computers used for Apollo 11. We can compare the first moon shot to early seafaring explorers who set out in wooden sailing ships with no way to figure longitude. They eventually mapped the world, however.
We still haven’t gone past the moon except for sending remarkable robots on interplanetary missions and through our ability to peer into the universe with telescopes such as Hubble.
The next generation of optics will surpass all expectations. Already, I am awed that what we’re seeing is similar to what was imagined 60 years ago by visionaries such as Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell.
But we apparently are taking aim at the moon again and a Mars mission is on the drawing board. The price tags will dwarf the cost of Apollo 11.
I recall the words of Arthur C. Clarke in “The Promise of Space” (1968). “Every revolutionary idea – in science, politics, art or whatever – seems to evoke three stages of reaction ... It’s completely impossible – don’t waste my time. It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. I said it was a good idea all along.”
Many people embrace the middle notion. Crewed space flight is not worth the cost. I can think of at least one good reason for heading out into space: Water. If we ever need more water (and many knowledgeable people say “When we need more water”), we’ll have to go out there – to the asteroid belt and beyond.
We learned more by sending astronauts to the moon than we could with robots. Extra-terrestrial exploration needs a human touch, especially if we go looking for finite, life-supporting resources. It’s the human ability to reach unrehearsed conclusions and make decisions that make it necessary.
The space program has brought us many things since 1969, such as advances in communication, medicine, metallurgy, propulsion, electronics and a host of other things we take for granted – even mundane items like better batteries.
I look back at Arthur C. Clark to examine the future because his works are largely grounded in the possibilities of technology wrapped in human foibles. He was the first person I know of to articulate the value of geosynchronous satellites for communication. He was right.
He also postulated that America’s space program was ambling along until The Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Right again.
Said Clark in 1968: “So far, those motives (for space programs) have been largely political – or ideological – arising from conditions which one hopes will not be permanent. Spacefaring, if it is to continue, needs a more stable basis than national pride.”
And, “Only through spaceflight can mankind find a permanent outlet for its aggressive and pioneering instincts.” Now there’s a thought to ponder.
I will experience much of our future as a mere bystander, but I will be watching any way I can, for as long as I can, every launch that takes us back to the moon and beyond. The thrill of achievement is no less intense now than it was in 1969.
How shall we go forward? “We came in peace for all mankind.” It says so right there on the moon. That message should be our guide in every human endeavor, wherever we go – on Earth or into space.
Reach Larry Clark at email@example.com.