DISCLAIMER: Robert is getting on the soapbox. Consider yourselves warned.
Apollo 11 landed on the moon 45 years ago this week, seventeen months before I was born. I can only imagine what it must have been like to witness this event as it unfolded. Landing human beings on the moon and bringing them home again is without a doubt one of our species’ greatest achievements. Possibly the greatest.
As we mark the 45th anniversary this week, I can’t help but think about what we’ve done, or haven’t done, since. Twelve human beings walked on the moon over a three year period. It should have been just the beginning of a great adventure for the human race. Instead, we quit. No human being has left low earth orbit since 1972. There’s a whole universe out there to explore, but we’re sitting on our duffs at home.
The excuses are many. It costs too much. We don’t derive any real benefit from space. The money is better spent elsewhere. Robot probes can do the same job more cheaply. The list goes on and on.
I chose the word ‘excuses’ deliberately because that’s what they are, excuses.
Much of my ire on this issue is directed at the politicians. The space race of the 1960s was really nothing more than an extension of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We won the race and for most that was good enough. How short-sighted. How foolish. How typically political. Is it any wonder I have nothing but contempt for politicians?
America built the Saturn V, the greatest rocket ever constructed. After Apollo and Skylab, we shut it down and essentially threw it away. What a crime. What a waste. All that work to create that magnificent machine and we only used it a dozen or so times. Can you imagine what we might be capable of lifting to space today if we’d kept making and improving them?
Everything we invented for Apollo could have have potentially put us on Mars in the mid 1980’s if we’d kept our noses to the grindstone. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen Baxter’s well-researched novel Voyage. Yes, several historical events would have had to go differently but the point is we had the technology and potential to do it if we hadn’t quit.
Many have called the space program a prime example of government waste. I would argue, instead, that the real waste was not capitalizing on what we did with Apollo. All that infrastructure, hard work, new technologies, and risk we took was thrown away. In my view, that’s the real waste. Personally, I’d rather the government spend money on true space exploration than on some of the ridiculous stuff it does spend money on.
I think about what America did in 1969 and everything that led up to it. From the moment of President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation in 1961 to that historic July 20 eight years later. Eight years. We went from barely scratching the edge of the final frontier to the moon in a mere eight years. Then, three years after that, we quit. It should be a national embarrassment.