Thoughts on the future of humanity, 49 years on from Apollo 11

It is 49 years, this weekend, since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the Moon. And it was an incredible achievement – not just for the United States, but for humanity as a whole. For the first time in the history of the world, we had left it – and stepped on another celestial body. The very first time.

Neil Armstrong in the LM, after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It was a day to remember. I was six in July 1969. At lunchtime, I came home from school to find that Mum had made a ‘moon lunch’ for us, inevitably with cheese. Back at school that afternoon they had a live radio feed from Mission Control in Houston going, as the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility. We didn’t have live TV at the time in New Zealand. There was a lot of ignorance about it. I still remember the teacher informing everybody that Armstrong had just stepped on to the moon, hours before he actually did – they had only just landed. It got better: one of the girls in the class tried to tell me he had fallen off the Moon. Well, quite.

That night we got to see the moon walk. An RNZAF Canberra bomber flew cans of film from Sydney, so they could be projected into a TV camera and broadcast. Yeah, tech was that gimcrack in New Zealand, back then.

All of this was coming up for half a century ago. And it makes me think about lost opportunities, lost worlds. Project Apollo, of course, was politically driven and cut back even before the first landings. But what worries me isn’t the loss of the various missions NASA had in mind to exploit the hardware – everything from lunar orbital stations to Lunar Module ‘taxis’ and small moon-bases, through to a manned Venus flyby. All of that is incidental.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA, public domain.

What concerns me is the loss of general direction, of purpose. Not just in terms even of space-flight, but in general human terms, in the way that Apollo and the moon landings drew the imagination of nations.

We live in the world built by Apollo: the very computers on which social media and the internet is founded were given pace, impetus and shape by the way that computing had to be developed for the moon landings. We have memory foam mattresses, non-stick frypans and a host of other things, including aircraft autopilots, all of which have their origins in Apollo.

Yet the spirit that founded and drove this, it seems to me, has gone. Our world is more divisive than ever, a world in which lies, polemic and hatred have become normalised, where the leaders of major nations behave in ways that would seem ridiculous in a kindergarten, still less the world stage. It is a world of validation ‘bubbles’ – built, ironically, using the very computing technologies Apollo drove. It is a world in which to accuse someone is to condemn them. It is a world beset by the consequence and detritus of our own behaviours, our own greed, our own wars.

Forty nine years ago – for all the troubles and tribulations that beset the planet in other ways then – there was still that sense of triumphant human endeavour – of a planet unified, however briefly, in an achievement the world had never before seen. Back then,  it seemed there was nothing humanity could not achieve, if we put our mind to it. And it is the loss of this that I so lament, as humanity divides and argues our way into oblivion, all the while fooling ourselves that exalting petty local interests irrespective of the damage done elsewhere will, somehow, make things better.

I tell you now, they won’t. Not unless, somehow, we can recapture that lost spirit – the spirit that wrapped humanity when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out on the lunar surface.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the future of humanity, 49 years on from Apollo 11

  1. You raise good points. I wasn’t alive then, but until Elon Musk hit the scene space related news has been generally mundane for the general public.
    It seems a lot of things have suffered for greed or some other horrible factor. Cars for instance have been deliberately held back in technical advancement for decades. I think that’s one of the greatest examples of humans being held back from possibilities.

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    1. I suspect a good deal in many areas has been sacrificed for immediate reward, not necessarily monetary, when a ‘long game’ view might have produced better results overall. Cars, definitely. I recall, way back in 1987, watching a lab test of a very cheap device invented by the New Zealand government-run scientific labs, which could measure the octane rating of incoming fuel and adjust the ignition accordingly, electronically – meaning you could pour anything into your tank such as methanol, petrol at various octane ratings and so forth, and the system would adjust the ignition to suit whatever flammability emerged. It was sold to one of the big oil companies and, as far as I can tell, was never implemented for many years.

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      1. Short termism is terminal.
        And that octane switch is one of many car advancements snapped up by a big oil/car company never to see the light of day or if so decades beyond its invention.
        The history of collusion and skyllduggery in the auto/oil business is shocking.

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  2. I distinctly remember that day. As it happened I was on an island called Kwajalein more or less in the middle of the Pacific, and all we had to let us know what was happening was Armed Forces Radio. We only really knew it was happening.

    Kwajalein was and is the southern terminus of a missile test range, the other end being at Vandenberg AFB in California. They’d shoot ICBMs at us; we’d shoot ABMs at them. Dummy warheads, of course!

    I’ve been space-crazy almost as long as I can remember. So for me the question about space exploration wasn’t asked so much as already answered.

    But here’s a statistic for you: according to Space.com, public approval of the Apollo program seldom rose over 50%. It was 53% during the first lunar landing.

    https://www.space.com/10601-apollo-moon-program-public-support-myth.html

    There’s even reason to conclude that the only reason we had a space program was because the Soviets had one, and, following the launch of Sputnik, that they were ahead of us in that regard, which could NOT, of course, be allowed!

    By 1950 Werner von Braun published an interesting little book called Project Mars: a Technical Tale, wherein he spun a tale about the first expedition to Mars. Interesting indeed, but in particular for the appendix to the book, where von Braun sets out the details of a Mars mission in, as foreshadowed in his subtitle, very technical terms, virtually an engineering proposal, to show the feasibility of an actual Mars mission.

    In the initial Congressional hearings to plan the lunar missions, von Braun urged Congress to support what would have been the first step of a mission to Mars, as he conceived it: construction of a permanent orbital platform. And, of course, this was turned down as unnecessary. Apollo was never about establishing a permanent presence in space, it was about getting to the Moon before the Soviets.

    You know, I wrote that, and part of me is screaming in rage.

    Concurrent with the first Apollo missions came the original Star Trek. Canceled after the first three seasons.

    Still screaming.

    Apollo 8, and that incredible, glorious, inspirational, life-changing picture of the Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon.

    And support never at any time rose above 53%.

    Still screaming.

    Walter Hohmann wrote “The Attainability of Celestial Bodies” in 1925. It’s interesting reading even today. Here’s a link: https://archive.org/details/nasa_techdoc_19980230631

    Robert Goddard wrote “A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes” in 1919. Full text here, to this day interesting reading: https://www2.clarku.edu/research/archives/pdf/ext_altitudes.pdf

    So, for very nearly a century, not just the idea but the means of reaching space have been in front of us.

    Some years ago I had the honor of meeting Scott Crossfield, the great aviation pioneer, who in his 90s still flew his own airplane and traveled extensively promoting space exploration. I’ve always thought the Douglas D-558-2 one of the most beautiful designs ever built, but when I asked Crossfield about it, he smiled at me and said, “Everyone wants to know about the past. No one is asking the right question, which is, why aren’t we on Mars yet?”

    Yet.

    That meeting was in 1997. We STILL haven’t set foot on Mars.

    I have to disagree with you about the unity of society at that time, a regretful disagreement, believe me. It’s a subject I’ve been devoting some time to since the 2016 election here in the States, and even before it. But maybe that’s a subject for another time and place.

    All we can do is keep dreaming. If we can keep the dream alive, we can find some measure of victory in that.

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    1. I think you’re right – the loss of dream occurred during the late 1960s, maybe 1967-69. I suspect the Vietnam War had something to do with it, certainly in the US; but it was a general thing worldwide – the Parisian riots are another instance of change in 1968 particularly. The fact that Roddenberry’s vision of a better future gained little traction at the time underscores it! There’s no question that Apollo was political. Still, I’d argue that even 53 percent support for it is better unity than we have over anything today, in any nation or as a species generally. I guess what I was thinking of more in terms of human togetherness was the moment of landing – the point where the world drew breath and everybody paused to watch or listen, if they could. It was a fleeting moment. Another, maybe, was the Apollo 13 drama; I remember that, too – and it grabbed attention, again briefly. Of course all that speaks more of the way Apollo was marketed and of human nature than anything else: we seem to be attracted to peril, as long as it is vicarious.

      I am envious you’ve met Scott Crossfield! Apropos these matters, I gather the F-104 s/n 56–0763 that he and others flew as chase plane in the X-15 program has been rebuilt, sans wings, into a land speed record car, Ed Shadle’s American Eagle. Speed potential apparently 800 mph, though I suspect the aircraft was never designed to taxi that fast, which is basically what they’re doing – gotta wonder about the aerodynamic interaction between ground and fuselage at that speed. I gather so far they’ve got it up around 480 mph. They’ll have to hurry, the Bloodhound SSC is due to run next year.

      https://fromspeedtosound.com/what-is-the-north-american-eagle-99642830b98c

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        1. Me too, though I must admit I’ve often wondered about the New Zealand land speed record, which is just over 220 mph, set in 2012 – pretty well manageable in a Bugatti Veyron, if anybody would care to give me one. And a 14-mile track, support crew, training time etc etc… 🙂

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