Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One Next Step For Mankind

Perhaps it was the same feeling, the same moment of awe, as that of the first colonists to land at Jamestown or Plymouth. A new world, being seen by those eyes for the first time. Stepping off, and placing a foot on new soil, carrying the hopes and dreams of so many.

No one save Neil Armstrong can know what he was thinking and feeling at that moment on July 20th, 1969, at 10:56 Eastern Daylight Time, when his left foot touched the lunar soil and he uttered the words many of us know by heart: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for Mankind." Unlike the original American colonists, who landed on a sandy shore, with trees and birds and the breeze in their faces, Neil was enclosed in his bulky spacesuit, the sounds of his life support backpack his constant companion, along with the sound of his own breathing and the chatter in his earphones. He looked out on a stark, barren, and inhospitable landscape; his traveling companion, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, would later utter perhaps the most descriptive two words to convey the scene: "Magnificent desolation."

That day happened forty-one years ago, and was a moment that, for an instant, locked every person on the planet who had access to a radio or television, together. An estimated six hundred million people were, briefly, one, in their awe and admiration for the feat. What had been touted as a "race to the Moon," was now shorn of its Cold War implications, and was a triumph for all humanity, our first tentative step into the cosmic ocean.

Like so many explorations in the past, the feat has not been followed up, as it so logically should have been. Lack of will, lack of money, lack of vision -- the curse of any great endeavor is that once it is over, the fickle among us turn away. Every Apollo mission after Apollo 11 (except for the near-disaster that was Apollo 13), would see American support wane and interest evaporate. Just as we were getting good at going to the Moon, we stopped, and turned our remaining equipment into the most expensive lawn ornaments of all time, or quietly rusting and decaying scrap. The glory of the moment, fueled initially by John F. Kennedy's vision, was now spent, discarded like a booster stage of the mighty Saturn V.

If we can put a man on the Moon... this was now the beginning of a refrain heard many times afterward. It was used to highlight the need to end poverty, cure cancer, stop world hunger, and end global conflict. If such energy, time, money, and knowledge could be harnessed to accomplish a goal that, until that moment, had been the stuff of science fiction, why not these other things? This is where the Cold War reasserted itself, for the impetus needed in creating a manned space program and reaching for the Moon was not initially made from high ideals, but fear, fear of a Red Moon, and nuclear weapons raining down on the United States from above. Sad to say, but poverty, malnourishment, and peace all lay at the edges of human vision, even as they do today. No number of documentaries about the plight of people in the world has engendered the kind of outcry and call for action that were supplied by the launching of Sputnik.

Many would see the Moon program as a waste of taxpayer money. Still others, did -- and still do -- seek to deny that it ever happened, pleased with themselves for denying America its technical triumph, secure in their own ignorance. Worse still, NASA's prominence flags, only holding on through the auspices of its robotic probes, as they comb the Mars and the outer solar system for information on the origins of the planets and life on Earth. Soon, with the last few Space Shuttle flights, there will no longer be the roar of human beings being hurled into space from the Florida coast. The gantries will fall silent.

A vast, seemingly limitless horizon awaits us. Untapped resources are there for the taking, obviating us from the need to pillage our world. Asteroids, filled to overflowing with mineral and material wealth circle us, waiting to be mined. Comets, bearers of water, can provide the potential fuel to explore the solar system thoroughly and supply space stations and Moon bases with oxygen and water for many decades. The Moon itself could become the next frontier outpost, part mining camp, part scientific research station, part launchpad for the stars, and eternal monitor of the health of the Earth.

Just as the original colonists and pioneers stepped off into the wilderness, with no guarantee of survival, or riches, or even stability, so too must we, humanity, step off into the void, cross the cislunar sea again, this time provisioned for the long haul, to settle and to explore and to harvest the bounty that awaits. The time is inevitable when we must do this; we are the only known sentient life in the universe, and our home cannot hold us in safety forever. As seeds on the wind and in the waves, we too must spread out, take root in new places, and let humanity grow, unencumbered by the limitations of our planet and our minds. It is not enough to bemoan the loss of the past, to shriek for a return to the way things were; our eyes should always look toward the future, toward what humanity can be and must be, if we are to be more than a footnote to cosmic history. We speak for humanity, and it is we who must make the next great leap for Mankind.

No comments:

Post a Comment