Today is July 20, 2011. 42 years ago, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Forty-two freakin’ years. My generation wasn’t even the proverbial glimmer in its father’s eye when the last guy (Eugene Cernan – I saved you a trip to Wikipedia) left the moon in 1972. Your smartphone is infinitely more complex and powerful than the computer that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the surface of the moon and back. Heck, even your wristwatch is probably more sophisticated. So forty-two years ago we landed on the moon and forty-two years later we’re getting ready for the last space shuttle flight to come back to earth with the space program on fiscal life support and seemingly no clear direction as to where it’s going next – certainly not in terms of manned missions. And far from being glued to their screens listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s descent from Eagle, people are likely more inclined these days to ask, “there’s still a space program?”
Public perception of NASA’s budget in the United States is that it accounts for as much as 20% of the total federal expenditure, when in fact it’s closer to 0.5%. You have the country that arguably led the way into the heavens spending $600 billion a year on ways to kill people (which is always guaranteed to win lots of public support) when the entire Apollo program cost a total of $22 billion over ten years to put men on another world. Thing is, if the people wanted more focus on outer space and voted accordingly, it would happen in a heartbeat. So why don’t we? When you think about the thousands of years of history that preceded July 20, 1969, the generations of civilizations looking up at the stars and wondering what was up there without the technological capability to see for themselves, the idea that human beings could ever look upon space with as much interest as they might have in a seven-year-old tax return is stomach-turning. It’s a betrayal of the promise of who we are, and the worst form of cynicism. Yet it happened. Landing on the moon was cool once, became routine and then stopped altogether. I’m at a loss to explain it, because I don’t see how you can look at those images the astronauts are tweeting from Atlantis and not be enraptured by the beauty, the fragility and the necessity of it all.
Opponents of the space program love to drag out the old cost-benefit rationale. “What do our tax dollars get us?” Certainly not a house in the Hamptons or a bridge in Brooklyn. The greatest benefit of space exploration is not measurable by accountants, because it is in enriching the spirit. It’s in asking questions of existence, faith and the human soul as much as any religion (which, by the way, gets numerous tax breaks without any demonstrable fiscal return). It’s in expanding us beyond the confines of our tiny planet and imagining the possibilities of an entire universe – where human trifles that consume our thoughts and our fears today are reduced to the insignificance of sand grains in favour of something far greater. Exploration united us on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong took that first step. It can do so again – what is required is commitment, courage and above all else, curiosity. And that is worth it.