The Last Great Thing

Comments around the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing abound today. As well they should. For one shining moment, mankind stood on the edge of discovery unlike anything seen in so many years. And now, forty years later, only incremental gains have been made on the brave first step President Kennedy challenged this country with in the 1960s. To me, never since have we been united in such a vision, nor poised for such a giant leap of faith as Apollo 11 and subsequent lunar missions set the stage for.

Being born just about six weeks after JFK’s assassination, I grew up around the notion of man in space. My father worked at Cape Canaveral. I can remember seeing the splashdown of the returning astronauts, and listening to the only voice there was — Walter Cronkite — describing what we were all seeing take place in front of us. It was magic… or at least seemed like it.

In school, I was taken with space travel, same as many other kids starting school in the early 1970s. We were too young to understand the horrors of the war raging on the other side of the planet, too young to see and remember Star Trek on TV during its original run, but exactly the right age to be swept up in all the wonderful images from NASA and the books in the school library promising colonies in space. I think I checked out almost every book on astronomy and space travel in our school libraries at Harrison Elementary and Brown Middle Schools, and vividly saw the artists’ concepts of where we’d be by the time I was “all grown up.”

And being the age I am, I also got to watch the first shuttle flight — that of Enterprise, and how proud I was that the first shuttle was named that! — when I was working in the library at the middle school. Through a friend of my parents, I met an astronaut — Paul Weitz, a Skylab veteran, and later member of a shuttle crew — spending a whole day with him as he toured my hometown, preaching the virtues of the then fledgling shuttle program. I watched the early shuttle missions, and really, to me, that’s when things began to change. The shuttle launches became regular, and seemingly easy, and for years, they were lost on me as I reached into my early twenties, and began to consider what I’d do with my adult life.

I was sitting at the MEPS station in Knoxville TN on that day in January when Challenger exploded, and for six grueling weeks, I endured US Air Force basic training, hungry for any scrap of information that would tell me what had happened in this tremendous disaster. And for a while, it looked like we’d recede, pulling away from space, like a child burned by a hot stove. Suddenly, space was hard, and we all got that explained to us in the sacrifice of brave souls on a winter’s day.

The seeming ease and the sudden loss in the shuttle program have, to me, sabotaged the future I expected to see through the eyes of the child I was. Sure, the space station has enabled there to be few days in the last many years when there hasn’t been mankind in space, orbiting far above us. It still excites me to go out occasionally to see the ISS cross the sky, lit by the sun in our darkened sky, but it’s not as far as we should’ve been by now.

Kennedy challenged us — yes, as a country, but also as a species — to reach the moon inside ten years. And we did it. Even to this day, the impact of that challenge is felt around us in the technological advances that make our lives easier. And now, forty years after the dream was realized, we all engage in a certain kind of pride — as a people, not as a race or country — that we were there. To my view, it was the Last Great Thing — the last big scary thing we did as a people.

It’s an odd wistfulness that I hear folks look back on it though, somewhat akin to remembering “the good ol’ days.” Unless we were sitting somewhere in space, the Apollo missions shouldn’t be viewed as something quaint and somehow old, but instead as something of pride and wonder and inspiration, and as the first step to the mankind’s future.

Here’s where the skeptic in me comes out. Until we — again as a people, a planet — can begin to speak with enough of a common frame of reference, it’s just gonna be impossible to go much farther than the moon. A single country simply can’t bankroll that kind of exploration, even if it is set about with a single-mindedness akin to our response to Kennedy’s challenge. A visionary needs to step forward, a cause needs to be found before those next steps can take place.

Think about it. We had both in Apollo: Kennedy was the visionary, and the cause was to prove our might as a country, standing up to the Soviets. While I don’t think sabre rattling exhibitions of might are the best reasons to go forth on our next steps, I do believe that a common cause is needed before folks will truly line up behind such an effort. It just seems that there are so many obstacles nowadays.

Even within our own country, we can’t speak with a common voice. We are fractured, divided, divisive, simultaneously equally materially opulent and morally bankrupt at times, and that’s likely just within any given neighborhood. Multiply by a whole big bunch, and the scope of the problem becomes clear. Our culture has become too focused on what gains can be had in the short term, angling to take the credit or calling out where the blame must lie, rather than focusing on the long view and how we can all get there.

I heard it said well the other night in a Cronkite tribute. If you’re younger than your mid-40s, you probably have no recollection of the Apollo missions, no sense for the excitement, wonder and awe at what was achieved, and how much it meant. Folks born in the early years of the shuttle program are now in their early thirties, and my daughter, soon to be making her own way in the world, likely can’t see what all the fuss was about — after all, from the view of her years, we’ve always been in space, haven’t we? Those are the folks that need to get the fever to reach beyond our fragile planet. It won’t be my generation, and it may not be hers, but the foundation’s gotta be built upon, not for us, or our children, but for our children’s children and beyond. That’s why it’s important, that’s the cause.

This little rant started out as just some thoughts on space, the future that has yet to come, and my clumsy view of some of how we got to where we are. It’s a bit of a buggy ride, I know, fraught with crazy wild-eyed ravings. But tonight, in reflection of Apollo, I’m reminded of the future I was promised as a child, and crazy present that in so few ways lives up to those visions.