The night when men landed on the moon in July of 1969 was a memorable one for me. It was a warm evening, and the Old Folks were out in the patio, trying to cool off. My sister June, and I were in the living room watching history being made a quarter of a million miles away.
Neil Armstrong, who died this week at 82, stepped off the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), saying “That’s one small step for a man … one giant leap for mankind.” It was arguably the greatest scientific achievement in the history of the human race, but only half the family found that worthy of attention.
Why did the Old Folks miss the moon landing when they never passed up a chance to see Lawrence Welk? They just couldn’t relate. They couldn’t imagine any possible benefit or connection to them from this expensive space trip.
That’s still not an uncommon reaction. Propose anything Really Big, like a high-speed train, or a solar energy plant, or that “information superhighway” that Al Gore kept yammering about, and there will always be a portion of people who simply cannot see 20 minutes into the future, let alone 20 years.
I could fill many pages with lists of impacts the space program had on our society, but I will limit it to a few. The computing industry boomed as we raced into space and ultimately to Luna, and electronic devices got more powerful and less expensive.
Increased computing power has allowed scientists to map the human genome, which makes gene therapy a hundred times more likely and more effective. Put another way, the small, weak (by today’s standards) computers created for the Apollo program started a landslide of knowledge that will soon crush cancer and other hereditary and congenital health problems ranging from cerebral palsy to hair loss.
The rocketry component of the program has led to tremendous progress in air travel and sophisticated aviation. The drones which allow our military to strike at our enemies without endangering our troops are the descendent of that.
But there’s much more. Without the space program and the satellites it helped orbit, there would be no GPS for your car, no national newspapers as we know them today, like USA Today and Wall Street Journal and no reliable weather forecasting .
I could go on and on, talking about innovations in plastics and ceramics that have found their way into cars and appliances, etc., etc., but my point is this: the investment is often worth a lot more than it looks, and the benefits are often incalculable.
There’s a spiritual aspect to this as well, a bit of “all things are connected.” When Apollo 10 circled the moon and swung around to return to old Terra, the photos they shot of Earth as a big beautiful blue marble touched me quite profoundly.
From thousands of miles out in space, you couldn’t see borders or nations or even much of man’s work. The planet looked beautiful and quite lonely. The “ecology” movement which is now called environmentalism popped up shortly thereafter. I wouldn’t be surprised if those images didn’t inspire many Americans to rally around the idea of trying to keep that blue orb of life healthy.
The space program and moon missions were “big ideas,” and so were the Interstate Highway System” of the Fifties and the Intercontinental Railroad of the 1860s. Those were expensive, sometimes tragic undertakings, but they changed history.
As we sit through a late summer of political conventions, a question arises: are we, as a nation, still prepared to do big things, to dare mightily, and achieve greatly?
In a stagnant economy, a lot of Americans probably feel like my parents, who back in 1969 saw space travel as an irrelevant boondoggle. How much they missed! And how much we would miss if we never dared to dream big again.