“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
— John F. Kennedy. Address to William Marsh Rice University, Houston, TX. September 12th, 1962.
Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin beside solar wind experiment. Mare Tranquillitatis, July 20th, 1969. NASA Archives AS11-40-5873.
Whenever I consider the Apollo missions, it is always with a twinge of sadness and regret. I laud the enormous technical achievement of hundreds of thousands of people, of course, but philosophically it puts me in a melancholy mood. The very last men to walk upon the moon came back home three months before I was born, and no human has been back to the moon since. Sure, we’ve been up to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but never again have we dared to set foot upon another celestial body.
Imagine if, after a frenzy of activity at the beginning of the 20th century, no human beings ever took flight in a heavier-than-air craft after Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Whitten Brown flew their Vickers Vimy bomber non-stop across the Atlantic. You would wonder why we hadn’t continued on to discover new things and develop better aircraft. And of course the convenience and frequency of travel and commerce we experience today would be absent. Entire inventions and industries would not exist. We would never have known the names of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Charles Kingsford Smith, James Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Robin Olds, John Boyd, and so on.
And certainly if we have given up so prematurely, we would have little reason to celebrate this day; the now-household names of Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Mike Collins would be unknown to millions. One of the best ways to commemorate this day is to watch the 2006 British documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. It contains no narration, just the voices and contemporary reminiscences of the Apollo astronauts themselves, along with copious amounts of NASA archival footage.
Watching these eleven men talk about their experiences is bittersweet. They all seem like bright and funny guys, their youthful enthusiasm shining through the accumulated wrinkles and years. I cannot help but remember that these men are the last humans alive who remember what it is to walk on an alien world. The fact that there are no men and women of my generation who have such memories seems shameful. If NASA is able to stick to schedule and return to the moon in 2019, by that time our very first lunar visitors will be 89 years old, and some fifty years will have elapsed since their visit.
If we fail to go back, there will soon be no one left alive to answer the skeptics and say, simply, “I was there. This is what it was like.” The only incontrovertible, physical testament to their voyages being the lower stages of their lunar modules, still standing sentry over undisturbed footprints at each landing site.
Whatever you think about anthropogenic global warming or the odds of humanity wiping itself out, the facts are that the Earth cannot be saved. It will be annihilated by its own star in a few billion years. Even if we were to neutralise every earthbound ill—tyranny, war, famine, crime, pollution—our blue-green Eden would still meet its irrevocable end. In that conflagration, every trace of human existence will be snuffed out. There will be no grand, decaying structures left as a tombstone to mark humanity’s grave. There won’t even be a planet; it will be destroyed by the helium fusion and tidal forces of our expanding Sun. Our moon and Apollo landing sites will likewise be destroyed. No one will know the human race ever existed.
The only permanent solution is to achieve interstellar colonisation. After all, every star will eventually run out of fuel, which means every species without interstellar travel has an irrevocable, unalterable best-before date. The smartest long-term investment this species could ever make is the ability to identify and travel to other solar systems and other habitable planets. There is no other way we will survive.
Our first tentative steps occurred forty years ago. Now with the Orion project, we are re-learning and refining the things we first discovered decades ago. Let us hope that manned space exploration continues to move forward now with greater purpose.