Remembering humankind’s first landing on the moon forty-five years ago this week stirs a mix of emotions. To an SF-geek-from-birth like me it was a dream come true. I watched the landing “live” on TV (it was also the first time my parents let me drink wine!) It seemed like the human race’s colonization of the solar system had begun. In lots of ways we now live in a science fiction world of personal communicators, video conferencing, laser weapons, and stun guns (tasers, not phasers), but we haven’t colonized any other planets. No-one’s even been back to the moon since 1972. Space travel hasn’t ground to a halt, but it has stayed close to home.
It’s been said that the real impetus for the moon landings was political. These days, other than a small number of purely scientific probes, ventures into space are increasingly for economic reasons, with private enterprise becoming more and more involved. That’s not a bad thing, except that it’s bound to the vagaries of fickle market forces. Still, I’m grateful that there are entrepreneurs with enough vision to take such risks, knowing that returns on their investment are far from guaranteed. There are vastly greater amounts of money being pumped into technology to give your smartphone a bendable screen, or to let you instantly share pictures of your cat’s latest antics with thousands of your closest friends, because that’s where the profits are. Much has been made of the fact that the USB stick you use as a keychain is more powerful than the computers that navigated Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Think how much better we could do these days if we really wanted to.
Too expensive? Detractors have always pointed out that the money spent on the space program (more than $100 billion in today’s dollars for Apollo and its predecessors) could have been put to better use alleviating poverty and sickness on Earth. I find it far more objectionable that six members of the Walton family (Walmart) have a net worth of more than $140 billion.
It’s become a cliché to compare the cost of space exploration to the amount of money spent on weapons, but it’s an important comparison. Because the conquest of space is about life, not death: ensuring a future for our planet and all of its inhabitants. Transplanting manufacturing and resource extraction to the asteroids and moons to ease the stress on a depleted Earth wracked by climate change. Offering new frontiers for those oppressed by overpopulation. Maybe most of all, making sure that earthly forms of life are preserved for the future. There have been at least five mass extinction events since life began on Earth—we don’t want to still be stranded here for the next one.
Politics or not, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon, we felt that the human race had achieved something truly momentous. Was that the last time we felt that way? Is it because of changing priorities, or have large scale problems brought on a global crisis of confidence?
We need the big dreamers to come to the forefront again. Instead of “how do we keep from backsliding?” we need more “I think I can, I think I can!”