I was born after the Apollo 11 moon landing. Not immediately after it, but it was recent enough that it was still a big event in peoples’ minds, a major accomplishment. Even as a kid I had a sense that there were only a few really big before and after moments in human history, events that are so big they’re transformative, that give us a chance to look at ourselves as a whole. The moon landing was one of the biggest, an event that, at a difficult time, gave a lot of people hope not just for a brighter future but a future that was close at hand. I was born into a world where it had happened, and where some older people looked at me and wondered what events I’d see in my lifetime. And it was still fresh enough that for my friends and I, even though we hadn’t been there, still shared in the afterglow. That’s why we turned every cardboard box, and the occasional bathtub, into a rocket to the moon, although I remember there was more of an emphasis on the countdown and liftoff than the actual landing. We’d crowd into a box and start the count at ten, mostly because that was as high as we could count but also because we were too impatient to start at anything higher. Then after watching and listening more carefully to launch footage which, in those days, we could only watch when one of the four TV networks deemed it ratings-worthy and not any time we wanted, we added “T minus” at the beginning even though we only vaguely understood what “minus” meant and had no idea what “T” was other than a letter in the alphabet. We dreamed of being astronauts ourselves, and I remember how excited I was when we took a school trip to the space center in Huntsville and got to see an exciting new generation of spacecraft, the Space Shuttle. We were assured it was an amazing technological breakthrough because it could go up into space and come back down again and again. I nodded solemnly even though I was thinking, that’s it? I was disappointed that it didn’t go to the moon, that it wouldn’t take me to the moon. When, I wondered, are we going back? There had been a few return trips after I came into the world but the last was Apollo 17, which returned to Earth a day before my second birthday.
Now, with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 looming I still wonder, when are we going back? And I’m trying to hold to the hope that it’s a matter of when and not if, although there are times that I’ve wondered whether we’re up to the job, whether it’s really our destiny. The idea that homo sapiens will spread out to the stars is a popular one in science fiction, and the idea’s appeal is so broad it seems like a given that it’s what all of us, or at least most of us, want. And we are a peripatetic species, which is why you find people everywhere. What we humans consider the most inhospitable regions of Earth, though—the deserts, the poles, Poughkeepsie—are paradise compared to space where we have to carry more than just an extra pair of underwear just to be able to survive. In his famous 1962 speech committing the United States to the goal of landing men on the moon and bringing them back safely John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and he appealed to a human desire to overcome a challenge simply for its own sake. But is that desire to overcome a challenge, for lack of a better word, universal? It seems unlikely we’ll populate the stars without extraordinary cooperation. Maybe it’s not what everyone, or even most people, really want. Maybe the desire to reach out across the stars and even to make contact with life that must be out there is just a metaphor, and that our ultimate destiny really is here.
It’s possible I’m just impatient. There have been some extraordinary advances in the past fifty years, and there are still a lot of things here on Earth, including our need to keep in mind that technology has given us the means to wipe out every living thing, including ourselves, either through a single rash act or through slow degradation of the resources we depend on. It’s ironic that the word “lunatic” comes from another name for the moon when most of our self-destructive impulses are directed at Earth, and at ourselves. Overcoming the worst of ourselves is an admirable goal regardless of where we go from there.
In the meantime the moon isn’t going anywhere; even when it sets in the sky I see it’s rising somewhere else. Even when it wanes it’s just our shadow passing over it, and it will wax again. The sun, by most estimates, has about five billion more years to burn, and we’ve already accomplished so much in just a fraction of that time. I hope we’re up to the challenge.