Thirty-four years ago this Sunday, two men traveled to Earth’s nearest neighbor, the moon, and spent a little more than two hours walking on its surface, performing experiments and collecting rock and soil samples. It was the culmination of a great dream, articulated eight years before by a young, charismatic president of the United States. And that dream was given form on a warm summer evening. The world stopped for just a moment, in the midst of war and civil strife, and looked on with wonder.
Apollo 11 was supposed to be the opening act in the greatest of all dramas, the opening of the high frontier of space. In a time when some had the courage to dream heroic dreams, people imagined that the moon and Mars would become the Oregon and California of a new age of exploration and settlement. It seemed natural that Americans, who had founded a new civilization on a virgin continent, would look up to the heavens for new worlds to conquer.
Yet just over three years after Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin first set foot upon the moon, the very last men to follow in their footsteps departed for home. No one has been there since, and that is a blot on our civilization.
How it was that we reached the moon, only to pull back, is a long, complex story. The simple explanation is that the Apollo program, born in the Cold War politics of the early ‘60s, died a premature death because of the politics of the late ‘60s. Polls at the time revealed widespread public sentiment for diverting federal spending on space exploration to more earthly concerns.
The space shuttle program was all that survived of plans to build upon the success of Apollo. The idea of reducing the cost of space travel by building a reusable rocket ship was compelling. But the shuttle was compromised by the politics of austerity that prevailed in the civil space program in the 1970s. To gather political support for the program, the Nixon White House decreed that it would satisfy all of the space launch needs -- commercial, military and NASA -- for the United States, an impossible task for one vehicle. That mandate was wisely ended by the Reagan administration in the wake of the Challenger accident. Finally, NASA itself was tasked with the maintenance and operation of the shuttle, turning a cutting-edge exploration and research agency into a high-tech space taxi service.
Twice, a space shuttle orbiter has been destroyed in an accident, killing the crew and leading to many months of painful evaluation and repair. The International Space Station, almost totally dependent on the space shuttle for its construction and maintenance, is on life support.
There are no plans to resume human exploration of the moon or to send humans to Mars. The U.S. civil space program, except for a few robotic probes, seems stuck in low Earth orbit and has a tenuous hold there at best. Had the political elites of 30 years ago made different decisions, choosing to forge ahead and to build on the success of Apollo, we would be living in another world.
Imagine that other 2003. Imagine space stations where dozens of researchers, scientists, businesspeople and even tourists live, work and visit. The flow of new discoveries, products and services -- like growing human organs in microgravity or space-based solar power -- coming from those facilities would have enriched our civilization in ways we can barely envision. Had Apollo’s success been built upon, a community of humans would be living on the moon, unlocking its secrets, using its resources to fuel a new industrial revolution in the heavens.
That was the world we lost, when the decisions were made 30 years ago to cut back and delay. As we wrestle with the questions brought on by the death of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew, we can add the following. Will people one day return to the moon? Will people voyage farther, to Mars perhaps? Will the high frontier of space finally be opened, not just for a few highly paid government employees but for all humankind? Our boldness, our vision, our willingness to summon a future better than the present will determine what the answer will be.