Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Last American on the Moon

On the anniversary of the first moon landing, I'm again bothered by a quote that has always left a painful lump in my throat:
"I always knew I would see the first man on the moon. I never dreamed I would see the last." -Jerry Pournelle
On July 20th, 1969, mankind achieved it's first footprint on a world other than our own. The first baby step towards the vast universe beyond our atmosphere. On December 19, 1972, the last man to ever set foot on the moon returned to earth, but it wasn't the same earth that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had left three years earlier. Everyone to some extent knew the world would change once mankind reached the moon, but I doubt anyone predicted that the change would be boredom. After only six flights to the moon, the world, or more precisely, the American public was willing to let NASA fall into the background and do their work with only quiet news articles now and then. And so the ax fell on the budget for mankind's greatest achievement in exploration, and with it the hope of going farther.

In recent years, disasters which killed a handful of very talented astronauts have made people forget one very important fact - the brave people who choose to go into space do so knowing that they may not make it back. They are pioneers who believed the greater risk was not to their lives, but to the future of mankind if they did not go.

With further cutbacks, the nation that once looked into space and to a President who quite literally promised us the moon, now is a nation whose greatest collective aspirations amount to athletic events and socio-political shifts that seem so important at the time, but are largely forgotten by the next year.

Make no mistake, though. Mankind will be back to the moon. There will be a human outpost there. There will be habitable satellites and publicly accessible transportation to space in time. But Americans aren't the only ones with a history of looking upward.

This isn't a criticism of the current politicians, but a concern for the state of the public mindset. It is "we the people" who the nation stands for, and it is "we the people" who must -want- a future beyond what we have now.

If we are no longer a nation that dares to dream big, and invest in the futures those dreams provide, what will the first child born on the moon read of us in the history books? Will we be the nation that risked it's best and brightest to build a future, or will we be like the nations of Europe, giving up our manifest destiny in favor of social structures that barely address a single lifetime?

History records ascendancy of nations over the empires that came before them many times over. As the "new world", we are merely the most recent. At the crucial moment of history when mankind colonizes space, we do not want to be the shunned former world power who gets left behind. If we are not leading the charge into space, can we really expect passage when someone else boldly goes into the future we didn't budget for?