Neil Armstrong’s gone. Let’s not let the spirit of Apollo die with him.
A reporter once asked Neil Armstrong to comment on the conspiracy theory that the U.S. had faked his famous lunar landing. He chuckled and said that it didn’t bother him, “because I know that one day somebody’s going to fly back up there, and pick up that camera that I left.”
The camera Neil left on the lunar surface was a glass-plate Hasselblad, more like the camera your grandfather would have used than the one in your back pocket. It’s been sitting on the surface of the moon for 43 years, next to a trail of Neil’s footprints that – because the moon has no atmosphere – look as fresh today as they did in 1969. The last time a human set foot on the lunar surface was in 1972; Richard Nixon was president, and Bill Gates was playing around with punch cards in high school.
Between 1969 and 1972 twelve men walked on the moon. Today only eight of them are still alive, and all are older than 75. In two more decades, it’s likely that everyone who has ever seen the blue Earth rise above the stark grey of the lunar horizon will be gone.
The Earth that Neil Armstrong leaves behind is very different than the one he blasted off of in 1969. Back then, the U.S., motivated by competition from the Soviet Union, viewed space exploration as an essential national effort. President Kennedy made the goal of landing a man on the moon public policy. The Apollo program was the product of these efforts, and it was meant to kick off an ongoing era of space exploration, to, in Kennedy’s words, “set sail on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Landing a man on the moon was supposed to be the beginning, not the end.
Instead, decades after their missions, the aging Apollo astronauts see a world that would once have seemed improbable to them. Forty years after the last Apollo mission, no one has walked on Mars or revisited the moon, and the United States sends its astronauts into orbit on Russian rockets because it lacks a launch vehicle of its own.
What happened to the spirit of American space exploration? It is not as if the moon missions failed to pay off. Apart from their symbolic value, they created a slew of technologies that we now take for granted (the miniaturized computer, better dialysis machines, and the fuel cell among others), and those images of the tiny Earth rising over the Moon helped inspire the modern environmental movement. A thousand years from now, the lunar landing may considered the only noteworthy event of the 20th century.
We need a leader with a compelling vision for space exploration. In 1962, President Kennedy inspired the public to become a “space-faring” nation before the end of the decade, faster than anyone thought possible. The price, he explained, amounted to less than Americans spent on tobacco products each year. How could each citizen not contribute the cost of a few cigarettes a week for man’s greatest exploration ever?
Now, NASA receives less than half of one percent of the federal budget, a tenth of its budget in the Apollo era. One can only imagine what NASA could do if its budget were doubled. But increasing this budget requires someone to make this case to the American public. With the death of Neil Armstrong fresh in our memory, it’s time for a leader to reignite the spirit of Apollo, to remind us why we explore space, and to paint a vision of what we can become if we do.