Roughly 102 hours, 45 minutes, and 40 seconds after Apollo 11 lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on July 16th, 1969, the lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon. Of course, today marks the fortieth anniversary of the landing. Over the next three years, six more missions were launched to the moon, and five were successful. The Apollo program is arguably the greatest achievement in engineering and courage in human history. Never before, and never since, have human footprints marked the surface of another heavenly body. The significance of these events cannot be overstated.
Space exploration is almost impossibly difficult. The earth, even in its harshest environs, is a warm blanket compared to space. First off, there is no air, as everyone knows. But it is also deathly cold, approaching 3 degrees Kelvin. Even inside of a spacecraft, the astronauts of the Apollo missions were subjected to massive amounts of solar radiation. As of yet, there is no radiation shielding as effective as miles of atmosphere and the earth’s magnetic field. The extreme forces that a spacecraft is subjected to during a mission jostle sensitive electronic equipment, leading to unpredictable failures. Any spacecraft itself is also an inherently dangerous object, stuffed full of elements and chemicals, oxygen and rocket fuel, that have a habit of exploding if meticulously controlled conditions go slightly awry. Just aiming a spacecraft in the right direction requires math that only a handful of people on the planet understand. All of these factors and more illustrate the tremendous obstacles that NASA had to overcome to get men to the moon.
We celebrate the achievements of the Apollo program because even not knowing all the details, we can still gaze up at the moon and know instinctively how damned hard it was to get there.
It could also be argued that human advancement stopped dead with the moon landings. Hardly the end of our technical achievements, nevertheless, the great advancements in computer science the last forty years have gotten us no closer to the stars than what we can see on a computer screen. We have turned space into a cosmic television show by relying on robots and telescopes to do all the field work. In the home and workplace, the internet, a decidedly inward space we created on our own for our own self-grown information has come to dominate much of the life of the planet. But it has no real purpose to it and little meaning. It’s a mere juggling act, a distraction from the real stage among the heavens. Worse, by looking down instead of looking up, we are just staring at the ground that will hold our graves.
The intelligence of humans is a profound gift of nature. We have the ability to comprehend life and death, something to which no other species on the planet can lay claim. We have the ability to observe and understand the universe and our small place in it. We have the ability to combine our philosophical and scientific minds, our reason and logic on a species-wide level, but we refuse to do so and so fail to realize that unless and until we break free from low earth orbit, we are doomed as a species.
Those are strong words, but apt. It was fear of the Soviet Union that drove the American space program to the moon, and it is starry-eyed wonder at the results that make us remember those first tentative steps from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But it is a fundamental lack of understanding of our place in the universe and on our planet that made all of this fade away and turn into a relic of past glories. It began almost immediately, in fact. Once the first landing was successful, the budget axe began to fall on NASA, and even the public lost interest. By the time Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt set down in Apollo 17 in 1972, the last of the moon shots, manned space exploration was essentially over. Since then, no human being has traveled beyond low earth orbit.
Our sun is about 4.57 billion years old. Somewhere around 5 billion years from now, it will begin its dotage, expanding into a red giant and swallowing the earth. Before then, about one billion years from now, the sun’s luminosity will increase to the point that all water will boil off the surface of the earth, ending all life. Even before then, the human species will likely have been long extinct due to any number of causes. Humankind has a finite existence on the earth. In order for that existence to become indefinite, something that is no longer bound by the rules of our solar system, we must make a second home away from the comfortable confines of the earth. This isn’t science fiction. It’s basic logic.
Space exploration is the most costly and most difficult of all human endeavors, which is why we have been all but grounded the last four decades. The rewards are few, the practicality is indefensible, and the risks for the explorers are almost unimaginable. The path of least resistance is to continue to do what humankind has done forever, to continue to live on a planet that natural selection has made ideal for us. It is the prudent and economical thing to continue to fling robots into the ether to uncover the mysteries of the stars. Eventually, we’ll even send them off on interstellar voyages, waiting patiently at home for pretty pictures of scenes that human eyes will never see.
If we choose to do this, to continue to let robotic surrogates travel in our stead, we may as well choose to do nothing, for there is no reason at all in finding out what is out there if we will not use that knowledge to pave the way for a great, and eventually necessary, migration from home.