In memory of Neil Armstrong, I hope that each of us will take just a few minutes in the next few days to reflect on the larger meaning of the American and global space programs.
At the time of his landing on the Moon, many of us had not been born. Yet no one has to tell anyone who Neil Armstrong was or what he did. It was nearly universally seen as one of the most historic, and also positive, events of the 20th century and, for some but not others, one of the most important events in human history.
Certainly times have changed in 40 years.
- We have taken a step backward in that the United States does not at present have either the will or the technology to send people to the Moon.
- It is likely that the next humans on the Moon will be Chinese.
- Exploring space and new discoveries are still seen as having great value, as can be seen from the response to space telescope photos or, more recently, the landing of Curiosity on Mars, but they do not hold the worldwide wonder of people walking on the Moon.
We all understand from a cold, historical perspective that Americans landing on the Moon came about as a race for superiority here on Earth between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Similarly, the arrival of Chinese on the surface of the Moon will be viewed, at least by the Chinese, as their arrival at the pinnacle of global technology and power.
But what did the Moon landing really mean for all of us? Wernher von Braun called it the greatest achievement since fish emerged from the sea onto the land. Historian Henry Steele Commager regarded it as “a proud day for all Americans, but an event apart from the mainstream of human history.” Which of these is closer to the truth depends, of course, on whether you believe that the future of mankind is rooted firmly here on Earth and will never leave (other than for scientific exploration or possibly a few well-heeled tourists), or whether we will someday explore, colonize, live and grow on other worlds or in space itself.
The legacy of Neil Armstrong depends on which future you believe. In memory of him and what he did for all of us, it is a conversation worth having over the next days and weeks.
James R. Wertz
Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.