The search for meaning in the space after Armstrong
I was born in 1969, about two months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. My whole life, the moon exploration file has sat in the outbox of humanity’s To-Do list.
My generation, and those brilliant if cocky Gen Ys and Zs who’ve followed, have all grown up in a world where we believe anything is possible, and not just because of all those sneakers ads. The theme of the JFK-inspired lunar program, as evidenced by those famous Armstrong words upon touching the lunar surface, was all about a giant leap for mankind.
In truth, NASA’s lunar conquest was more about asserting American superiority in a world then divided by an invisible iron curtain, than it was about the potential of the human race as a whole. All the same, the latter message lives on today. We can do anything. All of us. America’s moon landing was everyone’s moon landing, and for that, we have Armstrong to thank.
Most Americans are chest-beaters. Armstrong, by all accounts, was a measured sort of character who recognised his place in history without big-noting his contribution. He is remembered for a single step. In truth, his immense skill as a pilot, edging the lunar module down to the rocky lunar surface with less than a minute’s fuel remaining, was his most notable contribution to the mission.
For all this and more, Neil Armstrong was a hero. Pfft to that wheeled iPad buzzing around Mars at the moment. Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission looked like it was held together with sticky tape and tinfoil by comparison, but it was manned. A conquest is not a conquest unless human beings are involved, and uniquely in human history, Armstrong claimed new territory without hurting anyone else in the process.
They don’t make big names like Neil Armstrong anymore. In one of the greatest ironies of the so-called Global Village, it is almost impossible in today’s fragmented, information-overloaded world for one name in any field to stand above all others. If Jesus came along today, he’d be totally ignored or become the leader of a fringe cult at best.
Armstrong’s name will live forever. Who else from recent history could you say that about? Maybe Michael Jackson, who didn’t mind a spot of moonwalking himself. And maybe a supervillain like Osama bin Laden, whose only faint connection to the other two is that he was a lunatic.
The question now, as Armstrong passes and is laid to rest, is what is left to conquer? What, now, is really worth achieving if the space message and the sneaker ads are right, and anything is indeed possible?
The farthest reaches and indeed all but the nearest reaches of space are still totally out of question for human exploration. There’s not much left to explore in the physical realm on earth either, which is why today’s explorers are increasingly sounding like Guinness Book of Records aspirants with their treks from one pole to the other with only a parakeet for company and a bag of peanuts for sustenance.
So what next?
Here’s a clue. The greatest recent scientific discovery involved infinitesimally small particles. In a similar vein, the world’s most creative minds are shaping our lives with every-shrinking shreds of silicon.
That’s not to say that science and gadgets are the answer to everything. It’s an analogy to point out that we need to look inwards, rather than outwards, to mine the potential of humankind. Stuff the solar system, let’s save the world.
As many people pointed out on the weekend, people have been saying for years “we can put a man on the moon, so surely we can do X or Y…”
Without going all weepy, it’d be great if that sentence ended with people saying surely we can be better custodians of our own planet. That’s not to push a climate change barrow or any other barrow. It’s just to say that serious environmental custodianship will give us all a better long term chance than the schmickest space ship.
Neil Armstrong in his latter years was critical of the lack of big thinking of the American space program. Without totally dismissing his concerns, the world has bigger issues now, a fact reflected in popular science fiction.
Pop sci-fi has long held a mirror to our own pop culture. The early episodes of Star Trek, around the time of Armstrong’s moon mission, mimicked the dialogue and hypocrisy of the Cold War.
The world’s most recent interstellar sci-fi hit, Avatar, was all about a race trying to maintain the resources required for survival on its fragile, threatened planet. That’s what the sad passing of Armstrong has made me think about this Monday. You?
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