Give Us More Space

Neil Armstrong’s Death Puts Humankind’s Space Efforts into Perspective  

August 27, 2012 — God damn it. Neil Armstrong is dead. The first human being to set foot on a solar body other than this well-trod Earth. The first man to disturb the dust on a satellite that humankind has been worshiping and waxing philosophical about since we could worship and wax philosophical.

Bums me the heck out.

But not because we’ve lost somebody who is a hero for our entire species. That’s sad, but not tragic. He lived a kick-ass life, a statement that would be true even if he had lived only a mayfly span of time, just long enough to take a giant leap for mankind. What’s tragic is how little our space programs have progressed since that mammoth moment on July 21, 1969.

From the time Orville Wright flew a crude spruce wood and canvas plane into the air for 12 seconds on a sand dune in North Carolina to the exact second that Armstrong floated down the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module was 66 years. That is a staggering amount of progress for that timeframe. It means entire generations lived in both a pre-flight world and a post-spaceflight one. That’s crazy to me.

So you’d think progress in that area would continue to be exponentially propelled forward in the 44 years since Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. I mean, we should have a moon base. Regular manned missions to Mars, maybe some of the moons of the gas giants. Landed on a comet or two. Robots all over the solar system. A “Welcome to our solar system banner” somewhere outside of the orbit of Pluto. Instead, we have a cramped and obsolete space station orbiting the Earth and a few robots on Mars.

And while both of those accomplishments are pretty awesome in and of themselves, they lose luster in the grander context.

ISS is merely the extension of the millions of satellites-turned-space-junk that we've been tossing into orbit for the past half a century. The recent and exhilarating Mars Curiosity landing is only a refinement on something the Soviets did four and a half decades ago. That’s right. The very next year after the moon landing, the Soviet space program successfully landed a probe on Venus, following it up with some 10 more over the course of 15 years that sent back data and pictures. You can see them here.  As an aside, they also “reached” the moon a decade before we did. Here’s the proof.

And, of course, the U.S. landed on Mars in 1975 with the Viking probes and the Mars Pathfinder in 1997, while the Spirit and Opportunity rovers missed the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to land on the red planet.

So we’re receiving more and more data with more and more sophisticated instruments on Mars, but we’re not exactly branching out into the solar system. More like running over the same old, albeit alien, ground.

And, today, in 2012, we have no excuse.

We haven’t been stagnating in other areas of development. We’ve made unbelievable progress in the realm of computing, with every one of us having tiny computers in our pockets right now that are more powerful than the computers used in the Apollo missions. But that just underscores how far behind we are. We’re not using that technology to do anything we weren’t already doing in space with much cruder instruments. We’re using it to spy on each other with social media, create the most perfectly targeted ad system, and find the best-reviewed restaurant within a block of us.

But here’s why all of this is important. Every problem, every controversy, every challenge we read about in the news won’t get solved with all the things that we’re constantly fixated on, not new political leaders, not new laws, not new treaties, not new gadgets. In the cosmic scheme of things all of our moral and social progress are just the baby steps in a grander lifecycle. At some point in our distant futureif we have one of thosespace exploration will have been the only thing that really mattered. That we took our eggs out of the basket. Otherwise, every cool thing we’ve ever done is moot with one asteroid impact, one temper tantrum from the sun, one virulent strain of disease.

On the positive side, it does seem we’re about to get out of this space exploration stagnation somewhat. We have a private spaceport in New Mexico, for goodness' sake. And, while that just might end up being a carnival ride for the super-rich, maybe it’ll be the catalyst we need to get us out of this gravity.

In the end, the moon landing was a promise to future generations. One we haven’t really kept. I mean, the first man who ever set foot on the moon just died of old age. We're so far behind where we should be in space exploration and development. Let’s hope we get it on track before the NASA Mohawk Guy dies of old age, too.

All images courtesy NASA.