Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 20, 1969, "The Eagle Has Landed."

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

It should be noted that the LEM's navigation computer was about to land the craft in a crater filled with car-sized boulders. Armstrong took over the navigation, and steered the craft to a safe landing with only 30 seconds of fuel left. This great success was within seconds of becoming a fatal catastrophe.

Footprint on the Moon

Plaque on a leg of the Lunar Excursion Module photographed on the Moon

Aldrin on the Moon

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

---TS Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Earth viewed from the Moon, from the Apollo 11 landing site.


The Apollo 11 Astronauts met for a public reunion at the National Air Space Museum in Washington DC yesterday. The reclusive Armstrong made a rare public appearance. They urged a renewed effort to send a manned mission to Mars and to move beyond the Moon. Like all those who were so deeply invested in the program, they very much regret the virtual disappearance of the space program over the last 30 years. I suspect that their former Soviet counterparts feel much the same way. Armstrong emphasized the peaceful nature of the whole enterprise, that it laid the foundation for so much cooperation after the Cold War was over. International cooperation would be crucial to any future mission to Mars. As I said in an earlier post, the space program began in war and benefitted commerce, but ultimately was about neither of those things. It was an immense civilizing enterprise of collective exploration involving hundreds of thousands of people.

I wonder if we are capable of this kind of an enterprise anymore. We have brains, talent, and courage for the whole venture in abundance. There is no shortage of willing people with the bravery and capability to make a successful venture to Mars, or to the Moon. There is plenty of money. More money has been squandered in Iraq and in bailing out an irresponsible too large financial industry than was ever spent on space exploration.
Despite pledges by our leaders to get to the Moon and Mars, I'm betting money that the first base on the Moon will be Chinese. Ours has become too alienated and polarized a nation to make something like space exploration possible. The recently ended political domination of religious fundamentalism has seriously set back science and technology here. Foreign graduate students are no longer pouring into this country, not only because we've made it harder for them since 9/11, but because a lot of other countries now have better and more advanced programs of study with more generous and enthusiastic state support.

I visited Cape Canaveral a few years ago. For someone who grew up with the space program, it was a very melancholy experience. Looking at all those marvelous displays of past glories, I couldn't help but miss the old Soviet Union. It's not that I missed Stalin and Mutual Assured Destruction, I missed the competition. There was a real competitor out there always goading us to be better than we really were, whether it was in civil rights, culture, science, or space exploration. Looking at all the old launch pads gradually reclaimed by the swamps, it seemed to me that the Sole Surviving Super-Power emerged from the Cold War as a fat self-absorbed, paranoid, manic depressive barely able to hold itself together, let alone explore space.


*The BBC has an article on the coming next generation of Lunar Explorers.

*Toujoursdan at Cultur Choc has an article on what might have been; a cooperative effort between the US and USSR to explore the moon together.  This proposal was scuttled by the assassination of President Kennedy.

*Curiously, the coverage in the NY Times, and I suspect in much of the rest of the American press, is heavy on nostalgia and lite on any substance.  The BBC has had much better coverage of both the actual history of the lunar mission and of future plans for lunar exploration.  


Rick+ said...

Dear Doug,

I know it sounds silly, but this posting moved me to tears.

My father passed away three years ago. Reading this post reminded me of that day with him. It was so exciting. He had an instant Polaroid camera mounted on a tripod in the livingroom taking snapshots of our black and white TV screen.

Again, thank you... good tears.

Counterlight said...

I remember my parents waking me up in the middle of the night to watch the moon walk in grainy black and white. It was indescribably exciting. I regret that the subsequent generations have never had a comparable experience. Alas, they've had abundant comparable experiences to all the bad stuff of the 1960s from the assassinations to Vietnam.