Tuesday, July 20, 2004

One small step, then a stumble

Thirty-five years ago today, a Navy test pilot named Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another world. Armstrong's traveling companion, Air Force aviator Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, soon followed him to the lunar surface. I still remember sitting at the foot of my parents' bed in Bangor, Maine in the early morning hours, watching the telecast of this landmark event.

Over the next three and one-half years, a total of twelve astronauts would walk on the moon, including the first American in space, Alan Shepard, and geologist and future U.S. Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt.


If you had told almost any American in 1969 that, 35 years after Apollo 11, there would not have been a manned mission to the moon in more than three decades, he or she would have pronounced you daft. Most of us expected that, all these years hence, there would be a permanent human presence on the lunar surface -- a base of some kind -- and that flights to and from Luna would be almost as routine as air travel. Instead, the government suits elected to shut down NASA's lunar program in favor of the space shuttle, which would in turn enable the construction of a permanent orbiting space station.

We all know what happened then. The shuttle program became largely co-opted by the Department of Defense, and suffered a couple of tragic accidents that have doomed the future of that program. The space station project is now a shadow of what was originally envisioned, and while American resources remain committed to its completion, the existing policy essentially holds that once the station is completed -- which itself awaits the resumption of shuttle flights -- we will hand over the keys to an international space consortium and walk away.

To borrow a popular phrase, "Wha' happened?"

As with everything else in American life, it's all about the Benjamins. Too many special interests clamored for the money that was being used to fund the admittedly costly and inefficiently managed space effort, and the politicians caved. Instead of focusing on a boundary-stretching program that united all Americans in a common excitement, a window of opportunity was slammed shut, and we as a people are the worse for it. What a sad legacy that a nation with the proven capacity to aim for the moon has squandered its capital shooting at less important earthbound targets these past 32 years.

I believe President Bush's recent chatter about resuming an exploration-focused space program, with future missions to the moon and even to Mars, is little more than stump-speech happy talk. Nevertheless, I hope his successors -- whoever they are, and whenever they take office -- seize that football and run with it. Is there risk involved? Sure. Is there a financial burden to be carried? Absolutely. But we as human beings are always made better when we push ourselves to grow, and to step upward to the next level. That we can look to the stars together as a nation -- and as humanity -- elevates us all by driving our horizons higher than our petty squabbles among ourselves. That's a step well worth the price of its taking.

Neil Armstrong's "one small step" was indeed "one giant leap for mankind." It's a crying shame that we stopped leaping. Here's hoping we strap on our moon boots again in the decades to come, and realize the promise of that famous footprint in the cold gray lunar dust. It's time we again showed the world -- and ourselves -- that we're more than just the biggest bully on the block. We are a nation of people with, as Tom Wolfe put it in his legendary book about the beginnings of the space program, "the right stuff."

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