Saturday, July 20, 2019

An anniversary tinged with regret

Some anniversaries make us nostalgic. Some just make us sad.

Today's 50th anniversary remembrance of humanity's first footsteps on the Moon falls, for me, in the latter category.

It might be different if tonight's commemorations were observed not just here on Earth, but in all the lunar cities, and in the Martian colonies, and among the asteroid miners.

But there are no lunar cities. And we've never been to Mars. The vast riches of the Asteroid Belt remain untapped.

It took just 54 years for humanity to advance from Kitty Hawk to Sputnik. Just 12 more to get from Sputnik to Apollo 11.

At that dizzying rate of progress, it was hard to imagine, then, how far the human race might have traveled by now, and what we might have discovered, and what we might have achieved.

I was still pretty young that Sunday night when Neil Armstrong took his one small step. So perhaps I can be excused for failing to imagine, even in my worst nightmares, how little humankind would achieve in Space in the coming half century.

We've gone nowhere.

Oh, we've sent some probes.

And we've collected mountains of data, seen millions of photos, all of which show that Space is even more thrilling, and more likely to contain life, or at least the building blocks of life, than any respected scientist might have imagined in 1969.

It's all still Out There. But we're all still Here.

Robert Kurson's recent book, Rocket Men, chronicles the Apollo 8 flight, the first manned flight to the Moon, at the end of 1968. He chronicles a great nation coming together in common purpose and hope, with hundreds of thousands directly involved in seeing that incredibly daring mission off the ground.

But it all went so terribly wrong -- even as things went so wonderfully right in Space. We actually put men on the Moon. And brought them home safely. And even when things went wrong in Space, the miraculous rescue of the Apollo 13 crew should have persuaded humanity that we could figure it all out, whatever challenges we encountered. And yet -- by December 1972 -- three short years later -- with Apollo 17 -- we were done.

We haven't built cities on the moon, though we now have reason to expect that there's water there to support them. We haven't been to Mars at all.

Some visionaries, and/or billionaires, talk about Mars. Or about mining asteroids. Or about seeing if there is life on Europa. But we haven't even gone back to the Moon.

So pardon me for not joining in the general merriment over tonight's anniversary.

It just makes me sad for the future we might have had, but didn't.

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