What our culture needs:  the return of the manned space program

I was struck by something that I read in the news yesterday that had been one of those questions that kind of runs quickly through your consciousness and then heads off without leaving a forwarding address.  What happened to all the men who walked on the moon?

I’ve been going through a lot of films referencing the manned missions of the 60s and early 70s.  This was before I took my girls to the recent hit movie “Hidden Figures” (my cultural review of which you can read here…or just scroll down a little!)  My eldest girl is a freshman in high school and is very accomplished academically.  She thinks she would like to be one of the people in the control room at Houston’s Manned Spaceflight Center or guiding a roving vehicle around Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

I grew up wanting to be an astronaut.  I was in elementary and middle school through the go-go days of Mercury, Gemini, ( I entered that contest) and the early Apollo missions.  I loved reliving some of those feelings when Tom Hanks followed up his starring role in “Apollo 13” with his first big HBO mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon.”  I have been showing those episodes with our eager teenager and explaining a lot of the cultural background to those days.  We went from the excitement of Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon, to the cynicism of government deception in the Vietnam era, and finally explaining why the Apollo program was cut three missions short. The money being spent was confronted by the coinciding costs of the war and the funding needs of LBJ’s massive Great Society initiatives.

As I was watching these programs with this budding space scientist, and remembering the mood of the country as we witnessed these achievements, I realized that it’s been a long time since Neil Armstrong had taken that “giant leap for mankind.”  We have sent some great unmanned probes to all of the major planets in our solar system and have seen some great discoveries as a result.  But where is man in all of this?  How many Americans know that we don’t even have a way to get people into orbit anymore.  The space shuttle, a relic of 1970s technology, is permanently retired.  Our astronauts must hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the international space station.  That should be embarrassing to this great nation; is it?

I recognize that the expense is massive, but then so is anything that is being attempted that is new.  I have watched Amazon stock soar by several times past it’s original stock price from the late 1990s and they have rarely been able to report a profit.  That’s not a criticism, but it’s an indication of something.  Innovation doesn’t have to be immediately profitable in order to be a worthwhile venture.  The earth-changing innovations that resulted from the coordinated national endeavor to put men on the moon had many “spinoff” results that have changed our world. 

Technological progress was accelerated by the need for miniaturization and spurred production and advancements of integrated circuitry, fiber optics, GPS tracking, telecommunications, and new materials that could handle the hostile environment of deep space and the stresses of leaving earth’s atmosphere.  I’m not saying these inventions wouldn’t have happened anyway, but the need to solve problems with a deadline over your head (landing a man on the moon before 1970) led to a adrenaline-fueled drive to achieve the goal of a martyred president AND be the first to do it in competition with our hegemonic rival, the Soviet Union.

Yesterday morning, I booted up my Macbook Pro and was hit with a notification that made me stop, remember, and become sad.  The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, passed on at age 82.  He lifted his foot off the surface in December of 1972.  I was midway through my freshman year in college.  President Nixon had ordered a bombing of North Vietnam that would finally bring a peace agreement with North Vietnam.  This year will mark 45 years since men last walked on the moon.  How can that be?  The Chinese are already talking about sending a team of their own in 2025.  Now that we know there is plentiful amounts of water ice residing in craters at the poles providing precious water and oxygen for future lunar colonies, isn’t it about time we go back?

I’ve been disappointed that it’s been such a long time since we have had leadership, in either the Congress or the White House, that sees the value in continued space exploration, whether it’s for commercial or scientific use.  It’s part of what makes man unique:  he has always been motivated by a desire to seek the answers to the big questions of the universe around him.  I have been energized by the efforts of Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin.  Perhaps it’s not government’s job to organize these kinds of visionary expeditions anymore.  But  a unifying national scientific goal is where leadership, with a very visible bully pulpit, can get some momentum behind this kind of effort and make the case that the development of manned space flight is beneficial to our society.

I’m not saying that this should be only America.  On the contrary, one of the most remarkable and visionary space exploration efforts in the last decade or so was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe which not only used several planetary fly-bys to gain the speed necessary for it’s mission to explore a few asteroids, but also the vision and precision to land it’s Philae lander on a comet.  Extraordinary!  This became a cross-cultural event when the ESA asked famous soundtrack composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Bladerunner) to compose a theme to promote the mission.  Vangelis became so enthusiastic that he composed a whole album of songs to represent different tasks of the mission.  Enjoy the ESA promo film, with a few comments from the composer, at this link.

Let’s begin to raise our sights a little.  Our world should be about more than Candy Crush, Skype, and driverless cars.  Let’s go back to the moon.  Let’s set goals for missions to Mars.  As remarkable as they are as entertainment, let’s not just throw our money at Passengers, The Martian, and Interstellar.  Let’s agree to fund the kind of scientific development that will fuel these efforts.  They will have lasting economic and cultural benefits as well.  Leadership is key, but public support is necessary to turn this dream into reality. 

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