Fifty Years Ago Today
Once upon a time American went to the moon “for all humanity”.*
No doubt about it, it was an amazing technological and political feat.
There is no questioning the heroism and dedication of the people who actually made that trip, as well as earlier and later voyages into space.
Nor do we doubt the intense dedication and fierce drive behind all those who made the lunar landing possible, from the ex-Nazi war criminals who laid the ground work for America’s space program to the African-American women who labored anonymously to crunch the numbers that got us there and back.
And credit is also due to those who indirectly made this accomplishment possible, namely the Soviet Russians who took their own home grown rocket program deep into space, thus challenging the American capitalists to do ‘em one better.
(…and of course those Russians would not have developed their rocket technology so quickly if the United States hadn’t built nuclear bombs with the intent of dropping them on the aforementioned Nazis only to re-aim them at first Japan then the Russia, forcing the Soviets to realize they would place second in a toe-to-toe nuclear duel with their conventional American long range bomber and air defense counterparts, hence the need to build big fast mammy-jammin’ rockets to deliver their own bombs to US targets, so props to all the folks on the Manhattan Project, too…)
So it was a great feat, a tale told by geniuses, full of sound and fury…
…and signifying nothing.
I remember as a 15 year old watching the lunar landing with great awe and excitement, the culmination of a project that literally consumed America’s attention from before the launch of Sputnik (because we always assumed we would be first, right, because we were Americans, right?), past Gagarin, past the nerve wracking terror of the Cuban missile crisis, on to Kennedy’s epic challenge to the nation, past the disappointments and disasters and death that led up to the Apollo program, to the first tentative missions around the moon, to the actual lunar landing itself, televised for all the world to see…
…and once we landed and confined ourselves to hopping around and scooping up dust, I got bored and left the room to go read.
Oh, please, feel free to take pride in what we did, either as an example of humanity as a whole or the US in particular.
But it was a stunt, a p.r. show.
The same real scientific results could have been accomplished for a fraction of the cost with crewless rockets and remote control rovers.
It’s glamorous, and it’s exciting, but right now crewed space flight is stuck at the Louis Blériot level of accomplishment.
The space shuttle was as useful and as practical as a dirigible (and for all the talk of the reemergence of dirigibles for commercial travel and cargo, facts are they’re still talk even after a full century of technological advancement).
Crewed space flight still relies on the technological equivalent of a Model A…which is turn was just a slight improvement over its predecessor, the Model T (we’re promised a new generation any decade now, and that might get us up to the level of a Packard).
Mind you, I’m all for the exploration of space:
The Hubble and the various Mars and Jupiter and Titan and outer planet and comet and asteroid probes are wonderfully exciting and widen our knowledge.
But the bottom line is that except for very short term missions of limited and specific scope, all of which having to do with examining the effects of space on humans (and most of which can be more cheaply accomplished with orbing vehicles carrying primate and guinea pig test subjects), there’s no foreseeable role for humans to fill in space.
There’s a host of problems -- from razor sharp dust on the moon and presumably other airless bodies to deadly bursts of solar radiation we escape thanks to Earth’s unusually strong magnetic field to high levels of harmful background radiation around the outer planets -- that need to be addressed before long term human space travel and colonization is affordable.
By all means, let’s work on those problems.
But not at the expense of practical / profitable probes.
And most certainly not at the expense of this planet, by indulging in the silly and elitist phantasy that “we” (i.e., the very rich, the very powerful, and their select minions) can go somewhere else once we screw this planet up beyond the point where humans can live on it.
© Buzz Dixon
* Yeah, yeah, the original phrase was “for all mankind”. Byte me, big boi.