I don’t mind too much the future we’ve gotten so far. I like the Internet, and my cell phone, and my television bouncing to me from space, and all the other things that have come from what has essentially been the less expensive path of least resistance. I think the things that NASA has done with its robotic craft, which are now on Mars and over Mercury and pushing through the heliopause at the very edge of interstellar space, are nothing short of miraculous. This future has been pretty good for me. But I don’t think this future had to be exclusive of the future that Neil Armstrong seemed to herald, and for which he was our icon; maybe we could have had both, had our will to go to the moon been matched by a will to stay and build there.
We can still go back to the moon, of course. We can still go and build and stay and use the moon as our first stepping stone to other worlds. Anything is possible. But for me Armstrong’s death forever closes the door on a certain possible path the we could have taken, the one where that first small step and giant leap was not essentially taken in insolation, but was followed by another step and another leap, followed by another, and so on, one right after another, without pause and without interruption. Even when or if we return to the moon, we will never live in Neil Armstrong’s future.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the sound and fury of the US presidential campaign goes on, and Armstrong has inevitably been praised and invoked by both sides. Mitt Romney isn’t wrong to hail Armstrong’s character and accomplishments. But I’d remind Romney and his party that it wasn’t an unassisted, bootstrap-pulling individual who flew himself to the moon through sheer gumption and will; it was a massive, taxpayer-funded government agency that put him there. Armstrong’s accomplishment was huge, but he was also — like Isaac Newton — standing on the shoulders of giants: of political leaders with vision, of a government backed by the purse and permission of its people, of centuries of scientific discovery and research (some of it government-funded), of a society pulling as one.
Armstrong said it himself: a man took a small step on the Moon, but it was mankind that made that giant leap — together.
It’s not too late to remember how to do it.
(Photo by Buzz Aldrin)