40 years after One small step

by Peter

17 July 2009, 0128 EDT

40 years ago today, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon. Monday will be the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk. In celebration, NASA has released restored footage of the moonwalk, revealing in incredible clarity the amazing steps of Armstrong and Aldrin.

Its a fascinating moment for reflection on one of the most incredible accomplishments of the 20th century. The Space Program revolutionized America, revolutionized the world. It thrust us into the computer age, and it provided one of the most famous images of our world, reminding us of our shared home.

To put into context just how impressive the Apollo program was, it flew one of the most complex and powerful machines ever built, the Saturn V rocket, to the moon and back with less computing power than you have in your cell phone.

All this, brought to you by your US Government.

What I wonder is–could the US pull off a similar feat today? One of my students wrote a thesis this past spring essentially arguing no. Not because of the expense or the technical feasibility, but because of the lack of a good reason. Space, if you remember, was still the New Frontier in the 1960’s, something America could conquer in the midst of the Cold War when the Best and the Brightest still held promise for a greater tomorrow.

It seems a romantic myth today, that the country would unite behind a goal of progress, scientific discovery, and exploration of new frontiers. Today we’re consumed with debates about health care, terrorism, and funding the F-22, and a functional space launch capacity is deemed an expendable luxury. Indeed, with the pending (and overdue) retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 (lets remember this is 1970’s technology that still flies), the US will lack the ability to put people into space until the Constellation Program launches somewhere around 2015. No one is concerned about the “space flight gap” with the Russians (as the US will rely on the Soyuz program to access the international space station in that time). There’s no hue and cry that NASA plans to de-orbit the space station in 2016. The space program has no role in any of this, and that lack of a legitimizing foundation has led to its undoing.

In a way, space flight seems the ultimate source for international cooperation. Its sort of silly for the US and China and Russia to all compete to get back to the moon. From up there, there’s really no difference between any of us. The ISS was supposed to be a step in that direction. And yet, how much of a romantic myth it is to discuss a global mission to Mars or an outpost on the moon.

40 years ago today, that myth was much closer to reality than it is now.