I wrote some reflections on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Since I’m not going to be able to find anyone to publish them, I’ll put them here instead.
Moon Nostalgia on the National Mall
On July 20, I pretended people were going to the moon again.
That night, I joined thousands of other spectators at “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” an outdoor show commissioned by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and made possible by a partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior and 59 Productions. We were promised a full-length Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument and a once in a lifetime light-and-sound show.
Hand-in-hand with my almost-six-year-old son, I tolerated the sticky heat of D.C.’s weeklong sauna and navigated darkened streets blocked-off to vehicle traffic by the glare of police lights. In a moment of dark humor, I wondered if we would find a Hollywood backlot. “This is where we finally learn how NASA faked the moon landing,” I had joked with a friend earlier. Or, perhaps, reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s recent Salute to America, the space shuttle would shake off its mothballs and make a low pass over the crowd.
But as we turned the last corner, my doubts evaporated. For there, on the face of the Washington Monument, was the Saturn V in all its glory, smoldering silently on its launch pad. And by golly it sure looked like it was ready to go to the moon.
The show was as magnificent as promised, a seventeen minute whirlwind of nostalgia starting with Kennedy’s famous speech and going all the way through to later NASA achievements like the space shuttle and the International Space Station. The Apollo 11 mission itself was of course the highlight. On the Monument and supporting screens, the Saturn V went spaceward, the lunar module kicked up dust on the moon, and the Apollo capsule splashed down in the Pacific. When the rocket launched, I could feel the ground reverberating beneath me (presumably some subwoofer magic at work). At 10:56 p.m., when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, a boot print appeared on the Monument. Heroic music played in the background as voiceovers of the astronauts and the people at Mission Control made the mission’s tensest moments come to life.
When the show ended, the Saturn V faded from the Monument as if it never was, leaving a smooth façade crowned by two baleful, sentinel-like red lights blinking on and off. As I wiped the blur of nostalgia from my eyes, reality began to sink in.
There is no rocket that can go to the moon anymore. The best we have is a projection on the Washington Monument.
The moon landing is thoroughly in the past. It’s a memory, a point of patriotic pride, something we can hardly believe was possible. Too many Americans think it never happened.
Supposedly we are going back. President Trump has directed NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024; that effort was recently dubbed Artemis, who in Greek mythology was Apollo’s twin sister. The anniversary show made sure to note this most recent effort as it concluded. But, as of today, there is still no rocket, no lander, no rover, and most importantly, no approved budget to support Trump’s request.
And what are we going to do on the moon exactly? It’s not even clear there’s a point to returning.
In 1968, director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined humans traveling through the solar system to Jupiter around the year 2001 in the film of that name, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1966, Robert Heinlein wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which envisioned a lunar penal colony with millions of inhabitants by 2075. Fifty years ago, and even earlier, futurists were predicting everything from space elevators to gravity-generating rotating space stations to missions on Mars. NASA itself had grandiose plans. Perhaps the most moving part of President John F. Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech is not those famous lines but earlier ones, also replayed during the Saturday night show, in which Kennedy compressed all of human history into a fifty year span. By that reckoning, television and nuclear power came into being less than a week before the moon landing, and planting a flag on Mars would have been just one of six less-than-impossible things we could achieve before breakfast tomorrow. In 1969, humanity believed that it existed on the edge of history. Right after the moon landing, anything seemed possible.
So what happened?
The answer is of course complex. I’ll hit just a few highlights. For one, space travel is more difficult than most imagined. Mars, for example, is over 200 times further than the moon, and among other problems, we haven’t found a way around the near lifetime radiation dose a person would receive in the six months of space travel to Mars and back.
Moreover, human spaceflight can be hard to justify when robots can do it more cheaply and safely.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Apollo was not Buzz Aldrin’s boot print on the moon, but the “Earthrise” photo the Apollo 8 crew snapped in December 1968, in which the half-shell of Earth balances on the moon’s horizon, a fragile ball of blue and white. The picture made people realize that humans are the Earth’s stewards. It’s up to us to protect it, and we sure aren’t doing a good job. Outer space can wait.
In fact, science fiction was already taking this inward turn when the Apollo program was in its highest gear. In the 1960s, “New Wave” authors like J.G. Ballard and others cast aside “Golden Age” pretentions of rockets and robots exploring the stars, instead imagining new and strange futures on Earth where people are forced to grapple with the full weight of the Anthropocene.
The future never unfolds in quite the way we might imagine. In their stories, for example, Heinlein and Clarke envisioned humanity as a spacefaring race, but its leaders were nearly all white men. They failed to fully anticipate the social revolutions that shook up years of orthodoxy about race, gender roles, and sexuality.
And then there’s the internet, which rapidly connected humanity in ways that no one could have predicted, but paradoxically tends to encourage a narrower, self-oriented kind of progress. Why bother to see what’s out there when the sum total of human knowledge is available with the swipe of a finger? Often the death-spiral debates dominating Twitter and Facebook seem more enticing than exploring the universe. The pull of inner space triumphed over the draw of outer space.
After the show, I stayed seated in the grass for a moment, thinking these thoughts, taking it all in.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” my son confided to me.
I kind of had to agree, because despite all my doubts about the future of manned spaceflight, I’m a sucker for a space launch, and I will try to hold onto the dream of reaching upward to the cosmos for as long as I can. I hope my son does too.
Yet on that night, it was time to go. We couldn’t stare at the past forever. Before we left the Saturn V behind, I looked upward to an oppressive cloud cover.
I couldn’t even make out the moon.