Tuesday, July 21, 2009

40th anniversary of the Moon Landing: Setting our Eyes On Earth

The 40th anniversary of the Moon Landing was a good time for those of us of a certain age to reminisce. We looked at that silvery orb in the sky that night
a bit differently. But we also looked at ourselves with new eyes too.
Norman Cousins, who addressed a Congressional hearing about what going to the moon meant, where he said, 'The significance of Apollo was not so much that man set foot on the moon but that he set eye on the Earth.’

We certainly had the wonderful photos to prove that the earth was indeed a tiny blue fragile looking planet set against a sky of infinite blackness. But after 1969 not much else happened. We still found ourselves in too deep in the VietNam war. Nixon did not change his policies as a result. The so called technological "victory" over the Soviet Union did not much to change the determination to confront their eastern bloc neighbors if they showed any signs of breaking free of their communist yoke.
Schools just added Neil Armstrong to the list of great American explorers who made history. Probably the best outcome was the use made by politicians to make us believe in ourselves as capable of solving enormously intractable problems such as world hunger. How many of us heard that phrase--"if we can go to the moon..then.."
and stopped listening to it after it was repeated too many times and issues such as radically unequal education and housing persisted.

The moon project was then dropped. I heard from one commentator recently all the technology was sort of placed in deep freeze, the teams of engineers that were assembled the variety of resources supporting a manned landing all were dissolved as if the entire enterprise had been nothing but a show. Funding for NASA sank like a stone. As Tom Wolfe wrote in the New York Times the moon landing was "one giant leap to nowhere"

As Wolfe writes the funding for NASA went "from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.

As a result, the space program has been killing time for 40 years with a series of orbital projects ... Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, the International Space Station and the space shuttle. These programs have required a courage and engineering brilliance comparable to the manned programs that preceded them. But their purpose has been mainly to keep the lights on at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston’s Johnson Space Center — by removing manned flight from the heavens and bringing it very much down to earth."

But even had Werner Von Braun had better credentials to be the kind of Captain Kirk like visionary for the new age of space exploration it is doubtful that any air would have pumped back into the space program. If a venture is conceived as a PR victory it stays a PR victory. Kennedy's words we "choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard"--an appeal to man's never ending search for challenge--rings hollow today--the reason --we have ignored doing some easy things because it is too hard to do the hard work of organize a vision around our common humanity--our essential brother and sisterhood. Without that vision the people indeed do perish as do missions however brave and magnficent as the moon landing.

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