Most earthlings alive today were not yet around when humans landed on the moon. Millions of them seem willing to consider the far-out theory that it never even happened. To some of us who watched, the moon landings now seem like a faraway fantasy, a grainy black-and-white film running on a projector in the attic of our brains.
But once upon a time, for a few short years, the United States had a space program worthy of the name. That era hit its stride 50 years ago this month, when a few words, poetic in their compression, floated down from the heavens: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
For the first time in the known history of the solar system, sentient creatures had crossed space from one world to another. More than half a billion humans — the biggest audience in history — watched on television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the powdery lunar surface. Those steps and that crossing can never be undone. Preserved in the lunar vacuum, the bootprints could outlast the race that made them.
A half-century later, a large segment of the world is reliving the milestone, through films like “The First Man” and the new documentary “Apollo 11,” as well as podcasts, books, TV specials, banquets and anniversary celebrations. Astronauts have been barnstorming the planet, swapping tales from their cosmic camping trips of the restricted diet (nobody goes to space for the food) and the even more restricted sanitary facilities.
The anniversary of those good old days comes at a moment when space travel has again entered the national conversation. President Trump has said he wants to return Americans to the moon by 2024, and a new generation of swashbuckling rocket oligarchs has joined the action, lured by government contractsand grandiose science-fiction visions.
Amid all the excitement and nostalgia, however, it is easy to forget that over the past five decades we never really answered the central question: Why do we want to go to space?
The Cold War in orbit
Humankind’s space aspirations can be traced in part to the early days of the 20th century, when a bunch of rocket engineers and science-fiction prophets cajoled political, military and business leaders into following and financing their dreams to explore the cosmos.
Arthur C. Clarke, laying out the argument in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1946, quoted a Chinese philosopher who said that the search for knowledge was a form of play. “Very well,” Clarke wrote. “We want to play with spaceships.”
The play paid off. Had we not left our little bubble of air and gravity, we would never have seen “Spaceship Earth” from space, or achieved the environmental awakening that followed. Moreover, the Apollo program amounted to a decade of forced innovation that helped fertilize fields of technology and business, including Silicon Valley, that barely existed before, and convinced a generation of baby boomers that outer space would be part of their heritage. And, not least, it returned 842 pounds of moon rocks, which provided a diary of the birth of the solar system.
But it was not science, cosmic destiny or any great public yearning that put humans on the moon — it was Cold War politics. The Soviet Union’s surprise launch in 1957 of the first satellite, Sputnik, alarmed Americans, who suddenly feared that the beeps in the sky could become bombs, and transformed the Cold War into a technological competition. President John F. Kennedy, who had run for the White House in 1960 on what turned out to be a nonexistent “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviets, felt he had no choice but to accept the challenge. In 1961, about a month after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which began just five days after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Kennedy announced that America should undertake to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
His idea was met with a lukewarm reception at best. “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts,” Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said. (The final bill, as reported to Congress in 1973, was $25.4 billion, or roughly $150 billion today.) Scientists opposed a crash program to land on the moon, arguing that more money should be devoted to robotic exploration.
The public was no more enthusiastic. A 1966 poll asked Americans which government programs could be cut if necessary; 48 percent said the space program. Another poll asked respondents to rank government programs according to their importance; Apollo came in second to last, outranking only federal support for artists and the arts.
The 1960s were among the most tumultuous decades in recent American history. The placement of Soviet missile bases in Cuba almost led to a nuclear war. President Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated, an unpopular war was underway in Vietnam and demonstrations and riots racked the nation’s cities.
A partial accounting of the events of 1969 alone would include the Manson family’s murder of Sharon Tate and others, riots in Greenwich Village after the police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn that have come to signify the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, and the waging of a war against the government by the Weather Underground, a militant offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society.
The big movie that year was “Midnight Cowboy,” a gritty, X-rated portrait of hustlers in Times Square, which went on to win an Oscar. Woodstock — three days of peace, love and music in the mud in upstate New York — was followed a few months later by the Altamont festival in California, where a man was killed on camera while the Rolling Stones sang “Under My Thumb.”
That fall, the Beatles quietly began to break up.
On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral in Florida with a mule team and a delegation of the poor, singing “We Shall Overcome.” He urged NASA’s administrator, Thomas Paine, to cancel the launch and spend the money “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and house the homeless.”
The long pause
Two weeks later, when Apollo 11 returned, President Richard M. Nixon, who succeeded Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, called the mission “the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” But the Apollo program was already under political and budgetary pressure. The last three missions were canceled in 1970. The last flight, Apollo 17, in December 1972, was the only one to put a scientist, geologist and future senator — Harrison Schmitt — on the moon.
So much for science, or cosmic destiny. By then technology, or at least our worship of it, was becoming suspect. The moon shared the headlines with Vietnam. The same prowess that put men in space was also killing people in Southeast Asia and contributing to the despoiling of nature. Some people feared that governments and corporations, armed with computers, were turning them into an army of numbers.
“I am a UC student: Please don’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilateme,” read the sign on a shirt during the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the instructions on the punch cards used in computers at the time.
So dawned the Age of Aquarius.
Having beaten the Russians, we left the moon as awkwardly and cynically as we had embraced it a decade earlier. No goodbyes. No infrastructure, like bases or orbiting stations. Nothing to provide an easy way back. We ghosted it.
Science continued. In the years since, uncrewed probes have visited every planet in the solar system; robots have invaded Mars; space telescopes like Kepler and Hubble have revolutionized astronomy. And subsequent lunar probes have discovered water, in the form of ice, on the moon — stuff one could drink, perhaps, or break down to make rocket fuel.
In all, 24 men and no women circled or landed on the moon from 1968 to 1972. They represent an exclusive and shrinking club. Of the 12 still alive, the youngest, Ken Mattingly, is 83. In the nearly five decades since Apollo closed shop, nobody has been back.
But maybe that is not a surprise. The Vikings discovered North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus, but did not stay. And 45 years passed between when the first two expeditions reached the South Pole — led by Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, in the winter of 1911-12 — and a third group set foot there, led by George J. Dufek of the United States Navy.
Exploration advances in fits and starts. It takes time, and often new technology, for a heroic journey to become routine: reliable supply chains, edible food, a trillion-fold increase of computing power. Today the South Pole is a destination for both scientists and tourists. Is the moon or Mars next?
These days the most outspoken apostles of the old space mysticism are the rocket oligarchs, all of whom hope to make a fortune from it: Elon Musk, of SpaceX, the engineer who has built rockets that return and land tail-first; Jeff Bezos, of Blue Origin, the founder of Amazon; and Richard Branson, known for his various Virgin businesses and his adventures as a long-distance balloonist and sailor.
They have been taking reservations for space tickets for years. (Mr. Branson once promised a free ride to Stephen Hawking on Virgin Galactic, but Dr. Hawking died last year, a prisoner of gravity.) With NASA’s blessing, the International Space Station is about to become a tourist destination — for $35,000 a day, not including the cost of the rocket flight to get there.
Lately, Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos have ventured dueling visions of the far future: settlements on Mars, according to Mr. Musk, who has said he wants to die there (but not soon), or space colonies, according to Mr. Bezos — spinning, cylindrical cities floating among the asteroids, a callback to ideas of the “High Frontier” popularized by Gerard K. O’Neill in the 1970s.
Even the first steps toward any of these futures would require piles of money not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon. NASA estimates that Project Artemis, the plan to return to the moon by 2024, will cost $20 billion to $30 billion, and scientists fear that it could eviscerate the agency’s budget for science.
Still, barring war or economic apocalypse, it is not crazy to think that humans will reach Mars within the current generation.
Science is one impetus. We might never learn whether there is, or was, life on Mars — whether Darwin ever gave it a try on the fourth rock from the sun — unless humans dig and climb around there ourselves, and size up the situation with our own eyes. We will be alone until we find out we are not.
We now also know that no matter how well we tend our garden here on Earth (it is not going so great these days), the laws of physics are beyond our control. The sun will brighten and boil the oceans in a half-billion years or so. No matter what we do, the Earth will become uninhabitable.
In the long run we, or whoever our descendants are, have no choice but to play with spaceships. As Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, a Russian pioneer of cosmic mysticism, famously said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”
If we choose to visit these places and do these things, to paraphrase the speech Kennedy gave in 1962 at Rice University, it will be for all the messy, mixed-up and conflicted reasons, compromises and rationalizations that humans do anything, quarreling, wondering and fighting all the way. It will take longer and cost more than we thought, and make us solve problems we had not imagined.
Like history, destiny might be something that just happens to us while we are still fighting about it. In the interim, yes, some of us still want to play with spaceships.
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