The future is as bright as the moon

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Years ago, I conducted an informal survey, asking people if they could tell me what happened on the following dates: Dec. 7, 1941; Nov. 22, 1963; and July 20, 1969.

Most of my respondents readily identified the first two — Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. The third date, however, had many scratching their heads. Unless you've been paying attention to the hype the 50th anniversary has generated, July 20, 1969 may leave you guessing too. Here's a hint: It wasn't Woodstock.

Where were you at 9:56 p.m. (Central Standard Time) on July 20, 1969? Rocket scientist Werner von Braun described it as the most significant moment since primitive life forms crawled out of the oceans and began to inhabit dry land. But for most Americans, it generates little more than a shrug.

I'm referring to one small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind. Only it wasn't a giant leap. Not yet anyway. In the years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, humanity could not be accused of overachievement.

We made it back to the moon several more times (Apollo XVII in 1972 was the last mission), but the chorus of complaint only grew louder: Fix what's wrong here on Earth before we go traipsing about the solar system (an either/or proposition, unfortunately, in too many Americans' minds).

So we cut budgets, reversed course on manned space exploration, and focused our energies and resources here on our mother planet. Thankfully that has resulted in eradicating war, disease, poverty, and hunger, and stopping climate change dead in its tracks. 


In fact, we haven't accomplished much at all. Can you name one achievement by the United States since 1969 that deserves mention in the same sentence with landing on the moon? (The unmanned flights of Voyager I and II come closest). For those lucky enough to be alive then, July 20, 1969 is the greatest moment of our lifetime. By far. As Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote, "Apollo may be the only achievement by which our age is remembered a thousand years from now." If we somehow manage to survive another thousand years, it will largely be due to what took place on that Sunday in July of 1969.

As a nation we lost our vision and focus. We no longer seem capable of uniting in order to achieve a common goal as we did in the '60s. A lot of people think we lost our way during that tumultuous decade. On the contrary, July 20, 1969 was this nation's crowning moment. It was during the ensuing decades that we lost our way, and our nerve, and still haven't regained them. The anniversary of the moon landing ought to be a national holiday — as President Nixon declared for July 21, 1969. Instead, most of us have to be reminded when it took place (and sometimes that it took place). Seven percent of Americans don't even believe it happened.

Here's a confident, optimistic appraisal from NASA Administrator Thomas Paine in the December 1969 issue of National Geographic:

"If we give full rein to our growing space capabilities, we can rapidly establish a bridgehead in the heavens in the next dozen years. In the mid-'70s, for example, we could begin to assemble in Earth orbit a permanent manned station. … In the late '70s, we could establish on the Moon a base camp that could be occupied for months or even years. In the 1980s, we could send men to Mars. … An excellent Mars launching date, or window, will open on Oct. 3, 1983." 

Never happened.

Instead of giving us goals to stretch for, our political leaders have been telling us for 50 years what we can't afford. Hell, we can't even afford to fix our roads and bridges. Well, I'd like to add one more item to that list: We can't afford not to continue our exploration of space.

Recently there has been talk of going back to the moon and even sending human beings to Mars. According to the NOVA episode, "Back to the Moon," broadcast last week on PBS, there is renewed interest by private companies, as well as numerous international governments (including China, India and Israel), in establishing permanent settlements there. Why? According to NOVA, "The moon can serve as a platform for basic astronomical research; as an abundant source of rare metals and hydrogen fuel; and ultimately as a stepping stone for human missions to Mars and beyond." They've even found water beneath the moon's surface. Talk about providence. We may have been gifted with an ideal launching pad into deep space, which could turn out to be essential to our survival as a species (since we're well on our way to destroying this planet).

Maybe something is shifting at last. Maybe it has taken us 50 years to find our mojo again. For the first time in a long time, the anniversary feels like cause for celebration not lamentation. Apollo XI was not just some technical engineering feat. It showed what we're capable of — and how much more we can do if we don't stop and don't give up. Maybe we didn't peak too early as a civilization after all. Maybe there's a brighter future ahead. Much brighter. For the first time I'm feeling excited again. We'll see.

Imagine what might be said on the 75th anniversary of the moon landing in 2044.

Maybe that celebration will take place on the moon itself.


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