After thrilling to live television coverage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leaving boot tracks in moon dust, I set up a telescope in the backyard and focused on the Sea of Tranquility, the vast plain where the Lunar Excursion Module “Eagle” was parked.
Did the moon look different after human arrival? It did. Luna seemed more “real,” less science-fictional — a truly possible destination, like a distant mountain peak or an island on the horizon.
Apollo created a sense of national community; many were similarly touched. Given the relatively narrow range of national news media in the 1960s, particularly with only three major TV networks, we all saw the same stories at the same time. We were linked by a shared experience and a common store of information.
That summer I worked at an A&W drive-in, and the owner treated the staff to free burgers and malts in celebration of the lunar landing. Such gestures were typical and expected. In six decades we’d soared from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquility, and also attained the goal set by John F. Kennedy, the murdered president of Camelot, who’d committed the nation in 1961 “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
The following year JFK had asserted that we’d undertake this challenge and other space missions “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Apollo 11 became the gold standard for human achievement. How many times have you heard (or uttered) the lamentation: “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t [insert unsolved problem here]?”
But was the moonshot a long shot, really?
The science, engineering and fortitude that propelled Apollo were magnificent. But in the context of human nature and history, it was easy to meet JFK’s challenge because the manned space program tapped into one of the strongest of homo sapiens’ traits, tribalism, and into one of our most refined skills, warfare. The “race” to the moon was as much a part of the conflict with the USSR as were the Korean and Vietnam wars — one more surrogate for the nuclear altercation that couldn’t happen.
When the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in October 1957, it was close kin to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and probably a greater threat. Space, said JFK, was a challenge “we intend to win.”
So our tribe (democratic, free, religious, capitalist) was pitted against their tribe (tyrannical, oppressed, atheistic, communist) in competition for the highest “ground” of all, featuring the most powerful and complex machines yet devised, plus a new rank of heroes — astronauts — some of whom were already decorated combat veterans.
In other words, except for the technological details, it was old hat, the familiar conquest performance humans had practiced and cherished for millennia. Think of Hannibal astonishing the classical world in 218 B.C.E. by leading 40,000 soldiers, thousands of horses and pack animals, and 37 elephants over the Alps in early winter — the moonshot of its day. The objective was to surprise and slaughter Romans.
Not everyone was thrilled by the Apollo project. Novelist and World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut, who wielded science fiction himself, quipped, “You dig fifty pounds of moon rock and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Amitai Etzioni, a prominent sociologist at George Washington University, referred to “The Moon-Doggle.” The Rev. Ralph Abernathy led a poor-people’s march to Cape Kennedy, decrying the billions being spent while one-fifth of Americans lacked basic necessities, and threatening to obstruct the main entrance to the launch site. The artist Pablo Picasso said, “It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don’t care.”
Even former President Dwight Eisenhower considered it a waste of money. In 1967, 60% of Americans polled did not believe it was important to get someone on the moon before the Russians.
Fifty years on, Apollo appears, at best, a spectacular Cold War thrust and parry, at worst a spectacular propaganda stunt. No one has been on the lunar surface since 1972, but NASA’s fiscal 2019 budget of $21 billion includes funding for a Lunar Gateway, a return of humans to the moon.
A friend recently asked me, “Why are we going back to the moon?” A fair question. It will be expensive, and even space exploration enthusiasts acknowledge that scientific work and potential resource extraction can be more safely, and much more cheaply, conducted by machines. Witness the remarkable Martian rovers. The only reason to ship humans to the moon or to Mars (or further) is for colonization, for whatever benefits that population expansion beyond Earth is perceived to provide.
As a childhood fan of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and other masters of entertaining speculation, it genuinely pains me to say that colonization seems highly dubious, if not foolish. Science-fictioneers — that is, anyone (writer or scientist) who makes off-planet predictions — offer two basic scenarios: We shed excess population to other worlds much as 17th-century Europe did after bumping into the Western Hemisphere, and spread across the solar system and into the galaxy, eventually in great numbers; or, a privileged few escape a dystopian Earth to preserve a human remnant.
Biological imperatives will see 10 billion of us on this planet by 2050, and there is no logical reason to expend the vast amount of resources and time required for space colonization when they would be better devoted to promoting methods to survive and prosper on this world.
I grant you that’s unromantic. Even Abernathy conceded that the blastoff of the Saturn V rocket left him in awe.
Certainly it’s prudent and mind-expanding to learn more about other planets, to track and deflect asteroids that could do us great harm, to enhance our general understanding of astrophysics and the universe. But we should assign space excursions to robots, which don’t require expensive life support in the toxic milieu and function superbly without the stimulus of conquering hubris.
Before landing, the Apollo 11 crew snapped a famous photograph of a gibbous Earth — brilliant blue streaked with white cloud against the utter blackness of space — rising over forbidding lunar terrain. In 1970, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle addressed a NASA conference and noted the emergence of the environmental movement, which was finally gaining traction after several decades of conservationist struggle. He said, “Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place.”
That something was images of the Earth from space. Hoyle believed the legacy of Apollo and the earlier Gemini flights wouldn’t be the American political triumph, but portraits of our borderless home from afar, encouraging people around the globe to become neighbors for the common good.
The crucial challenge for our species today is tangled up in three serpentine predicaments: anthropogenic climate change, population growth and the need for resources sufficient to take care of everyone, and the threat of anarchic violence if we fail to meet those crises. Unfortunately, there isn’t a dramatic silver bullet (or Saturn V rocket) solution. The markers of success are mainly that certain things don’t happen — there is no cinematic blaze of glory.
For example, a president might commit us “to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of reducing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere to 325 parts per million.” Whose atmosphere? (This is where the portraits come in.) Who will we fight against? What will we conquer?
A man on the moon was a piece of cake.
It’s interesting that in Greek mythology Apollo killed Python, the holy serpent of the Delphic Oracle, usurping a line of earth goddesses. Perhaps we need fresh mythology. Like a human outpost on Mars, or a trek to the nearest stars, let’s think big. A place to start is by truly demonizing warfare, Gaia eclipsing Apollo. If we reduced the military budgets of the world by 90 percent (allowing for a minimum of self-defense until everyone chills out), we’d free up $1.6 trillion per year for research and development on cleaner energy, wiser land use, better cities — not to mention curtailing the most poisonous human activity and altering our basic mind-set.
Fantasy? No more than space colonization. Putting people on the moon was widely considered dreamy pulp fiction a few decades before it was done. We just need to remember it was easy.
If we can meet today’s harder challenge, then maybe we’ll have the leisure a half-century from now to venture out on the sea of stars. That would indeed be a triumph.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.