It’s July 20. Forty-one years ago, Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Lunar Excursion Module onto the fine gray dust of the Sea of Tranquility, and took one small step for [a*] man, one giant leap for mankind. The club of men who have walked on another world’s surface is the most exclusive imaginable: twelve men, nine of whom are still living. Until NASA and Congress (or the EU or China or even Russia) decide to spend wildly on a new moon program, the club is not accepting new members.
It’s a moment that once seemed so epochal that it was printed on new desk calendars: July 20, Moon Day. And today, apart from the This Day In History segment on the news, it’ll blow by without notice. It feels antique, a bit of the Cold War that lingers on, like the American military presence near the former border of East and West Germany, or the Cuban embargo.
I bring this up on DadWagon because, like a lot of science-inclined kids in the seventies, I drank up this story like no other, and at the time it was still a living tale: the Apollo program had just ended, the Shuttle program was on the way, and the general public indifference to space flight and its budgetary requirements was just beginning to harden. It may be the political issue over which I find myself most conflicted, too. My head says to listen to the scientists, the ones who say we can do a huge amount more science for less money by sending up bots and probes, which require neither oxygen nor food nor training. Drone astronauts are a good idea, particularly if we’re husbanding our budget, as we should be.
And yet…and yet. Unmanned probes are cool but not mind-blowing. They inspire the hardcore but not the kids. And they don’t feel like the next generation of Lewis and Clark. They feel like high-tech banking or running Predator drones. The advantages of manned spaceflight are hard to quantify, even though a lot of people try to quantify them. (Things can sometimes be fixed on a manned flight, for example, whereas when a robot breaks, that’s it; a little dose of pliers-and-duct-tape improvisation can be useful a quarter-million miles from home.) As I say, I’m conflicted, but I think I come down on the side of optimistic spendthriftness. Maybe not right now, when the budget is a disaster. But in a few years, after the financial collapse is behind us (please, God, please), if federal spending is even close to balanced, I say let’s go back. Yes, it’s a little pointless; no, we no longer do technological things Just Because. But here and there, we should.
Will my son see someone walk on another world in his lifetime? It’s a tossup. But I’d like him to. If he’s so inclined, in fact, I could, just faintly, envision him in a bulky white suit, joining that extraordinarily exclusive club.
*Is the correct quote “for a man” or just “for man”? The former makes sense; the latter is what we all heard. Or is it?