The check I put in the mail this morning to pay my monthly credit card bill bears the tiniest trace of a mistake I made. On the date line of the check, I almost did not write, “July 20, 2019”; I almost wrote, “July 20, 1969.”
The same impulse, to write or speak that earlier date, has come over me several times on this day in the fifty years since that remarkable summer night, a measure of how deeply July 20, 1969 was embedded in the consciousness of everyone who watched the moon landing, wherever they were. There are some dates–December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, April 4, 1968, September 11, 2001–time will not allow us to forget.
To be honest, most of the images I remember from that night (it was a Sunday) are fading from my memory. Even watching a YouTube video of the television coverage doesn’t bring as many of them back as I would like. I remember hoping Neil Armstrong didn’t slip as he descended the ladder of the Apollo 11 lander; and I remember thinking most strongly, as my sisters and my parents and I watched Armstrong and Aldrin bounce on the surface of that other world, “Where do we go from here?”
That was the question I kept asking myself that night in various forms. What will this night lead to? What kind of future will there be? The television series Star Trek had been off the air, cancelled, for about four months when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down, with Michael Collins circling above, but Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future seemed a whole lot closer that night than it had been in about three years. Roddenberry’s fictional future was predicated on the development of some kind of renewable, universal power source on Earth, one that compelled humanity to stop delving into the Earth itself for the limited supplies of oil and petrochemicals, and freed us to provide basic necessities for everyone on the planet, while also allowing us to explore the region of space around us.
We have not yet found or developed that limitless, universal source of energy, unless you count the sun itself, as many do. Even there, however, difficulties remain. Solar power works best only in those regions of the world where sunlight is most abundant. Otherwise, it’s about as reliable a service tool as one’s satellite dish–good on most days, annoyingly bad on others. The search continues, mostly involving some form of atomic power, but no form of atomic power yet developed is free from the dangers of radiation. We may find, centuries from now, that our greatest accomplishment as the human species on this planet was the development of a Dyson sphere, and the harnessing of the energy from a nearby star. That task would be monumental; it would take many, many lifetimes to achieve; but it would preserve us as a species, and allow us to go where we will, in this solar system, in this galaxy, and perhaps beyond.
The giant leap and the baby steps Armstrong took on the moon that night seemed to promise the beginnings of such a future for all of us. Yes, he planted an American flag in the lunar soil, marking the end of the race to the moon, a contest the Americans won; but even in 1969, even in Mission Control in Houston, where I lived, we knew that that night was more significant than any competition. E.B. White, commenting on the moon landing in The New Yorker, knew it, too. “Like every great river and every great sea,” he wrote, “the moon belongs to none and belongs to all.” The landing there represents the finest efforts of both men and women from the earliest days of the twentieth century, in mapping the territory of the moon, calculating the escape velocity, flight path, and orbit needed to survive, risking one’s life to see if humanity could live beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and developing the technology that allowed astronauts to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely and come home.
Measured by the accomplishments of Apollo 11, the years since have seemed just a touch disappointing. Humans haven’t approached the moon since Apollo 13, and there are some good reasons why. The Americans won the race to the moon and there was no reason to push the contest further. The disastrous explosion aboard Apollo 13 scared everyone involved with the space program and reminded them just how vulnerable human beings are when they go beyond the kindly influence of this planet. Yet, the generations alive fifty years ago all knew that giant leaps are always followed by baby steps, as one recovers one’s balance. Apollo 13, the Challenger explosion, the Columbia tragedy–all of these events impressed indelibly upon us the enormous risks of human space flight, and a great many of us are more at ease with taking our time in developing deep space capabilities than we used to be. I hoped to live long enough to see humans land on Mars. It’s very doubtful now that I will, despite the cheerleading we are hearing from private rocket companies. I am, as the saying goes, ok with not seeing it.
There are many problems to tackle and to solve: developing onboard systems and backups that are foolproof; creating shielding to protect the crew from radiation that will kill them; providing food and other necessities to last for the six-month journey there and the six months back; developing a habitat that will foster good working relationships and good health among those aboard for the long journey. Each of these elements is critical. A failure in any one of them would mean death for the crew; there will be no rescue possible, despite what we have read in novels and seen in movies. In my opinion, the radiation between here and there is the biggest risk. To survive it, a crew might even have to be genetically altered before the mission begins, which means we’ve got to learn a whole lot more about DNA than we presently know, and overcome the inevitable moral, ethical, and political objections to altering that crew. The solutions, and the battles over them, are years in the distance.
Still, because of what happened fifty years ago, I am optimistic about those of us on planet Earth, and hopeful of a good future. Given the risks, why should we press forward with the human exploration of space? We should, because we can, and there are benefits to doing so. Comets and asteroids exist close enough to us for us to go to them and mine them for water and minerals that are not in abundance on Earth. You want a limitless supply of energy? The rocks around us could supply all we will ever need. What we have to do is get there.
There is an ongoing debate about whether the moon would be practical as a base from which to go to Mars. It probably would be, but the voyage to Mars is going to be expensive no matter what choices we make. What we learn in getting there will be worth the cost, even if that cost involves the loss of human life. I will not forget Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on this day we celebrate the Moon landing, and those who may give up their lives in getting us to Mars will not be forgotten, either. The main reason for going there is the survival of human life itself. It may be possible to live there a long time, over millennia, as our Sun burns itself out and life on Earth dies.
Beyond Mars, who can say where we will go? The distances to the stars and the planets around them are immense–trillions and trillions of miles. We’ll be lucky to explore most of this solar system and as far as we can see with our telescopes, and that’s about it. As far as venturing out is concerned, we are destined, I think, to be mere dreamers on the shore, dipping a single toe into a great ocean whose other side we cannot see. Many of us would like to leap into that ocean and swim out as far as we can, but we haven’t learned how to walk yet, much less swim. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins showed us the first steps in the process. The next leap, though, will take some time. It will involve progress in physics, in genetics, and in artificial intelligence. It will involve the realization that, although human minds need to go into space, human bodies may not have to. Whether we send out machines tethered to human brains or some combination of human and artificial life yet to be created, reducing the fundamental perils of living in deep space will be just as important as developing the propulsion systems to get us where we want to go.