Fifty years ago today, a soft-spoken man from a small town in Ohio became the first human to set foot on the moon.
Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man” — he was supposed to say “a man” — fulfilled not only a murdered president’s bold deadline but also centuries of human longing. Here’s some sobering context: We are now as removed from that exhilarating night of July 20, 1969, as were the people of 1919 and in much the same condition. The people of 1919 could not put a man on the moon, and neither can we now.
Were some Rip Van Winkle from July 1969 — perhaps some hippie who took the wrong combination of chemicals at Woodstock a month later — to wake up today, he’d marvel over many things in our society. The technological changes might not astonish him; we expect the future to be futuristic. But this would surely blow his mind as much as an acid trip: We gave up on the moon. On the day that Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon, Vice President Spiro Agnew had declared — Kennedy-like — that we should aim to be on Mars by the turn of the century. That deadline is now nearly two decades in our rear view mirror. We’re not walking across the red sands of Mars. We’re not inhabiting colonies on the moon. We do have astronauts circling in low-earth orbit, but the United States can’t even put them there. We have to rent a ride on a Russian rocket. How did the country that put men on the moon turn into a space-faring hitch-hiker? (More properly, a space-faring Uber rider, since we’re paying Russia as much as $82 million per seat.)
In hindsight, the moon program fits perfectly into a historical context. Christopher Columbus, sailing in the service of Spain, stumbled across a new continent in 1492, but it was 1565 before Spain finally established a colony at St. Augustine, Florida. That’s a span of 73 years, so we’re still on schedule. Humans move in fits and starts. While the United States is not back on the moon now, we eventually will be, and we won’t be alone. In April, China announced plans to set up a research station at the moon’s south pole “in about 10 years.” Exactly 10 years would be 2029, but “about 10 years” might mean 2028, which is the date that the United States has set to establish its own moon base. If the Chinese built an inhabited moon base before the United States does, that would also fit with history: The French established a colony in Florida a year before the Spanish did. The Spanish also slaughtered all the inhabitants, which is why Florida today is not Quebec. We hope that space exploration will be more peaceful, but human history is not always encouraging on this point.
The U.S. in July 1969 sent men to the moon and brought them back with less computer power than most of us have in our phones. We also did it while tapping the talents of only some of our citizens. There were lots of white men in the NASA control room (including 1944 Virginia Tech graduate Chris Kraft, a senior NASA manager), but only one woman. Just imagine what we could do today with faster computers and a wider talent pool. Speaking of computers, some might ask what good the space program accomplished. Some might talk about the questing nature of the human spirit. Some might answer: Tang. Here’s another answer: All the technology we have around us. The U.S. won the moon race not on the Sea of Tranquility but in Silicon Valley. We got to the moon and the Russians didn’t because we figured out how to miniaturize the electronics. The Russians kept trying to build bigger and bigger rockets and that became impractical. American ingenuity made everything smaller and lighter. The Apollo program put men on the moon; it also indirectly led to microwaves, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and Fortnite. That mostly worked out OK.
Since 1969, American space policy has been marked by apathy, mistakes and dead ends. The space shuttle was a technological marvel that turned out to be dangerous and never met the turnaround time that had been promised. Multiple presidents — George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump — have declared that we’ll go to Mars, but none have followed through with the funding that such a mission would require. Whatever you think of Trump, he has been more rhetorically enthusiastic about the space program than all the presidents since Lyndon Johnson combined. Even he, though, has had to deal with a fundamental divide in the space-faring community: Do we focus on returning to the moon in a permanent way or do we focus on an Apollo-like sprint to Mars? Actually, a trip to Mars would be more like Apollo times 722. The Apollo 11 flight took eight days there and back. A round-trip flight to Mars would be about two years. The policy question before us is much like the ones that faced Spanish monarchs of the 16th century: Should we invest in setting up a colony in North America or should we send Ferdinand Magellan on an around-the-world trip (which took about three years, so was effectively the Mars mission of its day). The difference is Spanish kings didn’t have to worry about voters asking why we should pay for either.
Fifty years after Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, we remain mostly earthbound — but on the cusp of a new space race. This one is also between the superpowers, except their names are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. We have billionaires building their own rockets, and envisioning their own private space programs. Again, a historical parallel: Governments funded the initial voyages of discovery and the initial settlements, but ultimately private enterprise took over. For better or for worse, the same thing is happening with space. Private companies — some launching from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore — are taking over the business of trucking satellites into space, leaving NASA to focus on exploration. There’s still the ultimate question of a moon base or Mars, but for now NASA has a clear, short-term objective. In May, NASA announced the goal of returning to the moon by 2024 — with that moon base established by 2028. The moon program will be called Artemis, the twin sister of the mythological Apollo. NASA also says Artemis will do what Apollo never considered: It will put a woman on the moon. NASA presently has 12 female astronauts. Likely at least one of them will walk on the moon. As for Mars, let’s do the math. Armstrong was 38 when he stepped onto the moon. If he’s the model and the 2030s are the official goal, then that means the first astronaut on Mars is probably between 18 to 27 years old now. Wonder who she is?