July 20 marks 45 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Forty-five years since the culmination of a national program in which the very best of America was focused on the highest possible achievement — the opening of a new world.

Regardless of the motivation, be it Cold War politics, the seeking of personal legacy or the disguising of a military capability, the choice of actions, the choice of destination and the scale of the challenge — within a dramatically short time frame — made it one of the singular boldest and most important initiatives of human history.

And now, here we are, 45 years later. Having succeeded magnificently, we were unable to stay, became unable to return, and are now unable to even put Americans into space at all.

This must not stand.

The United States, the greatest nation on Earth, a nation of nations, who when it placed its own flag on the Moon made it clear that it did not claim it but instead did so for all humanity — this nation must lead us back and to the universe beyond.

And now is exactly the right time. Inspired by that first quest, raised on the possibility of possibility and having at their disposal both the lessons of the success of Apollo and the failure of our space program since then, a new generation of space leaders is rising up that is ready to carry that flag back, on to the red plains of Mars and into the free space between worlds. They are entrepreneurs, scientists and yes, employees of the government. They are very young, some of them, and they are older too, as some have never given up and, feeling the energy of the new generation, are revitalized and joining in the revolution. These are not pie-in-the-sky dreamers. They are realists, they are serious and they need to be given the tools to do what they know they can do.

And that is our job. Since our national leadership is constantly and consistently demonstrating that it cannot lead us into the universe as President John Kennedy tried to do so long ago, we must do so ourselves. We — those who lived through the rise and fall of our space program and those who stand to inherit what we do today — must unite and become our own leaders.

From now on it is up to us to point to the stars as our destination. It is now up to us to declare that we do what we do because it is hard. It is up to us to set goals that challenge us to move now, so that the first steps start today and the first successes happen well within the life of those making the declaration. And it is up to us to set aside our petty differences as to pet technologies, pet destinations and petulant political partisanship and unite as an unstoppable juggernaut that will not only succeed, but do so magnificently.

At the top level we must finally agree that our national goal in space is the establishment of thriving and viable human communities beyond Earth and put plans in place to make this happen. We must put in place the mechanisms and structures that assure our government and our industries work together — each doing what it does best — making it central to any move forward. We must agree on the path — first steps and major goals along the way — their priority and how they fit into the overall vision. And we must assure that those now in our way are either brought into this cause or removed from their ability to obstruct it.

The practical steps are many, but some are clear and easy: We must end or spin off human spaceflight projects that do not fit into the priorities and path chosen above and redirect funds and personnel into those areas. We must change contracting systems, management interactions and cultural appendages left over from the times of doing little and costing a lot to new systems and structures that support doing a lot for little cost. 

We must understand that we will do better for all if we do better ourselves, thus all U.S. government managers and planners must be told that the first partners of choice are those here in America. The idea that the only way to return to the Moon or go to Mars must involve international partners is ridiculous. We have in the United States single companies and individuals who can, and indeed some who intend to do so themselves. Let us focus on what is expedient and efficient in terms of U.S. goals as a priority, then reach out to others to contribute if needed and if it is cost-effective. I am an internationalist. I’ve proved it with Mir and other projects. But I also know that I am a better partner when I am in good shape myself — so too is America.

Oh, and along that line, one pet peeve that I will allow myself: We must end the stupidly outsourced fiasco whereby we pay a tyrant to carry our astronauts into space and instead buy rides for them on spaceships made in America by Americans.

We have the right stuff, right now to do this. We need not wait for Congress or a magic president to save the day. In fact we should get together ourselves and tell them what we want, why we want it and how we think it should be done. Enough of waiting for the squabbling to stop, and enough trying to torque things around every four or eight years as a new president rolls in and redefines space. We in the space community know what to do. We may disagree on the details, but that’s fine, we can let the parties fight over those to differentiate their political products. I would much rather their bidding war be about the best way to achieve a shared goal rather than what the goal should be or whether we should have a goal in space at all. Wouldn’t you?

Forty-five years. Here we are. We. The pioneers. We in this field are the few who know. We are the ones who understand. We possess sacred knowledge. We have seen it done right. We have seen things done wrong. We know what works and what does not. We have the institutional and actual memories of those who made it happen the first time and the fire and drive of those who can take us back and beyond. All right now. This will never be true again in human history, and will only last a few years. Think about it.

And all of this as we are about to enter what may be one of the scariest times in that history, as we try to deal with a world soon to be engulfed in fear and the psychology of deprivation, denial and less, rather than the glory of abundance, adventure and more.

So my friends, do we spiral down into a morass of self-loathing misguided attempts to save a planet that may only be saved by those who reach out toward the next and the technologies and ideas we create to do so? Or do we reach up and outward, not only applying our energies to reaching for the stars but saving our precious home world even as we do?

I say up!

Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries and Orbital Outfitters and founder of the EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute.