It’s probably a surprise to no one that reads this, that I was enamored of NASA, astronauts and space travel when I was youngster. I watched the later Apollo missions, the docking between Apollo and Soyuz and the first space shuttle launches – transfixed to the TV in a rapt wonder that I have probably never experience since. I dreamed about what it would be like to walk on the moon, or on better yet, upon the surface of Mars. Clearly, that was going to be MY generation’s next great leap.
Apparently, something happened along the way to the stars.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the day when a human being first stepped onto the surface of an astronomical body other than the Earth. I believe it – and the ensuing Apollo program – is the greatest achievement in the history of human endeavor. Think about that — in 80 years, humans went from riding horses, to standing on the moon.
In half that span, what have we done? Shouldn’t something just as spectacular and mind-boggling have been attempted and conquered? I think in these intervening years we have turned inward – we have created a linked-together world where someone on the opposite side of the globe can read these words as soon as I post them. We have sequenced the genomes of human beings and hundreds of other species. Either of these accomplishments would have seemed like science fiction to the astronauts and engineers of Apollo – and today they’re commonplace enough that they barely require remark.
But we’re farther away from the moon than any time since 1960. We couldn’t get there today if we wanted to – and Mars? Please. The space shuttle – the program that was supposed to be the stepping stone became the centerpiece of our manned space program. It was quickly out-dated and overused — to occasionally disastrous results. It’s essentially like driving a 1976 Chevy Nova into orbit with an old 386-PC computer to help. And while our unmanned robots (the Hubble telescope and Mars rovers) have been wonderfully successful, we’re quickly going to be unable to put a man into orbit. The shuttle program is due to be stopped next year, with no replacement in sight. The only way we’ll be able to get an American in orbit is to hitch a ride from someone else (like the Chinese or Russians). How sad is that? Talk about outsourcing.
And so, this is a day that I’d really like to celebrate the achievement of the Apollo astronauts and engineers – the zenith of human accomplishment – and yet, it’s a very bittersweet day because I wonder what this generation of children dreams about.