Forty years ago today a man first set foot on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong left a boot print and uttered his immortal “One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.” And here I am, suddenly struck by how much this anniversary celebration spotlights where America is and isn’t in 2009.
You see, at any given moment I am only one nudge away from complete and utter geekdom for all things NASA and space. I know random facts about the Mercury, Venus, and Apollo programs. I can name the men that died in the Apollo 1 fire. I knew about Apollo 13 before the movie. Space fascinates me in a unique way because it is both the great unknown and the great equalizer. Get us off our little blue ball and we are all exactly the same.
That’s my favorite thing about old Sci-Fi movies, or even Star Trek; the moment earthlings have to deal with other races, the whole concept of disagreeing over skin color or national origin just becomes silly. Space Conquest is a global victory.
But I digress. Just as we have.
President Obama posed with the Apollo 11 Astronauts and no one seemed to notice the irony. President Kennedy challenged the nation to explore space at the same time Martin Luther King Jr. challenged blacks and whites to live as equals. Now, 40 years later, President Obama represents the new high point of MLKs dream, yet the high point of our space exploration remains stalled and remembering the good old days.
Wasn’t the world supposed to look like “the Jetsons” by now? Shouldn’t the moon landing have been the beginning of something? And yet, the farthest man has ever explored was accomplished, got boring, and was scrapped before I was even born.
Yes, I know we were “racing” the Soviets. But Armstrong wasn’t standing on the moon saying “I claim this moon for America”, or “That’s it, we won, beat that you commie bastard!”. Instead the entire world watched. And marveled. Not because it was America, but because that was a man up there. A human, breathing air and looking back at all of us.
But now we’re going around the world apologizing. Or policing everybody else. Instead of a superpower racing to the moon, we’re a supernanny passing out discipline and crackers.
No one loves a hall monitor. We’re inspired by the rebel kid showing off with danger and conquest.
America may be the last remaining “SuperPower”, but we don’t act like it. We look back at the great things we used to do like an old man pondering a misbegotten youth. We say how great we were to do something generations ago, but don’t take it as inspiration.
New excitement has sprung up about going back to the moon. And when the Apollo 11 guys were asked how they felt about NASA returning they spoke as true adventurers “We’ve already been to the moon. Why aren’t we going to Mars instead?”
But these adventurers are now grandfathers. Old and frail. And as if to accentuate the point, Walter Cronkite died just before this celebration. The man who talked the nation through the death of President Kennedy. The newscaster who took off his glasses to wipe tears from his eyes as Armstrong walked on the moon. The world watched, and Walter Cronkite marveled along with us. It was a new world, one where men really did visit other planets!
Now that world is literally dying. Remembering days gone by instead of reveling in days and conquests to come. Individuals have done amazing things since. But nations stopped trying to expand man’s horizons and now just try to keep the peace.
I can’t help but think it’s awfully peaceful in Space.
A giant leap indeed. I hope someday we leap even further.