Neil Armstrong died on August 25th, just over a week ago. Forty three years, five weeks, and one day earlier, he became the first man to walk on the moon as the commander of Apollo 11. Just over three years later, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt touched down as the crew of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon. Forty years later, and we haven't gone back. Forty years later, and no human has gone farther than low Earth orbit. We dreamed big dreams once. We saw the moon and took it as a goal, and with little more than determination and duct tape we got there. Astronauts went to the moon in a vehicle that had less computing power than you have in your cell phone. They used their technology to go to the moon. We use it to shoot pigs at birds. Our dreams have become small. All in all, twelve men walked on the moon. Tens of thousands of men and women worked to get them there, but these men carried our dreams.
It must be a hard thing to carry the dreams of millions of people on your back, and it is likely that none felt this as acutely as Armstrong. Yes, eleven other men made the voyage and touched the lunar soil, but he and Buzz Aldrin, his crew mate for the landing, are the men that everyone remembers. There are people who know the names of every single man who touched down on our moon. I'm one of them. But the average person probably doesn't even know who Edgar Mitchell or John W. Young are, let alone what they look like. So Neil felt the weight of all those people who felt like he had carried them on his back to the moon, and who wondered why we have not gone back in four decades. Neil more than most of the others likely had to deal with the silly people who claimed that the greatest accomplishment in human history was a crude hoax. And Neil was, by all accounts, a modest and unassuming man who keenly understood that the only reason he was able to make the trip was because of the sacrifices made by others. Men like the crew of Apollo 1.
I don't have any real way of knowing this, but I would guess that Armstrong, Aldrin, and every other Apollo astronaut regarded the sacrifice made by Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee to have been justified by the pursuit of the exploration of space. As Grissom said, the only way for humans to understand the moon is to have humans go to it. Many people say that human spaceflight is too expensive, or too dangerous. That we should settle for sending robotic probes to explore for us. To me, and I suspect to the men who worked, struggled, and sacrificed to build the U.S. space program and take those first steps on a another world, this is almost insane. It also disrespects the memory of men like Grissom, White, and Chafee who knew the risks, but thought they were worth running. And the men like Armstrong and Scott who faced the dangers of spaceflight as part of Gemini VIII, and still returned to space (Armstrong on Apollo 11, Scott on Apollo 9 and Apollo 15). Because they knew that going, seeing, and exploring are fundamentally human pursuits, and fundamentally worth doing.
Why don't we go back to the moon? People talk about the vast expense it would entail, some estimates ranging in the $250 billion ballpark. In proportion to NASA's roughly $20 billion per year budget, that is huge. But NASA's funding is a drop in the pond for the U.S. government - less than one-half of one percent of Federal funding. If the U.S. government spent as little as one-percent of its annual expenditures, which would amount to one-fifth of one percent of national GDP, on NASA, we could have a moon colony with twenty years. And still do all the other things that NASA does every year. For next to nothing we could have humans living and working on the moon, studying it, building a place to explore the rest of our solar system, and fulfilling the dreams of men who, forty years ago, carried our dreams with them. Why don't we do this? Because we have lost our way and are adrift. Because we forgot the example of men like Neil Armstrong. And Buzz Aldrin. And Pete Conrad. Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Dave Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmidt. And because we have forgotten the sacrifices of men like Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee. Because our dreams have become small.
We could go back. We should go back. Forty years ago, we achieved greatness. Since then, we have become timid. We need to reach for the stars again, and reclaim our greatness as humanity.
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