Looking back from this distance, it’s still an amazing feat, made even more so by the fact that the technology that got us there was basically one step up from a World War II rocket and computers the size of a garden shed that now dangle from a key ring. There’s more computing power in your average smart phone today than what ran Apollo 11. And it was all bought and paid for through government agencies.
I seriously doubt that we’ll ever mount anything so ambitious in such a short time again. Back then we went from Echo I, a helium balloon in space, to Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility in ten years, and I’ve lived longer than the time it took to get us from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base. What drove us to complete this amazing mission in 1969 wasn’t, as the then-recently cancelled “Star Trek” intoned, our desire “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” It was to beat the Russians and win the propaganda war of capitalism and American spirit over Commie collectivism and scary grainy pictures of mushroom clouds from which we ducked and covered. Yes, there was a spirit of adventure and sci-fi to it, but it was basically an ideological pecker contest, and we won. So there.
We’ve come a long way since that July of 1969 when we set foot on the moon. Going into space turned from adventure to lab work, and the greatest benefit from space-bound technology is that now you can listen to music bounced off a satellite without commercials. By the time the Apollo missions ended in 1972, the launch barely warranted headlines. Only tragedies such as Challenger and Columbia would remind us that going into space was more than just another way to get somewhere else.
Until we prove Einstein wrong and make the jump to hyperspace, we’re stuck on this rock, and chances are no one from anywhere else will come to call, so we’ve got to make the best of it. That means taking care of ourselves, each other, and this pale blue dot adrift in the incalculably huge universe.
So when Neil Armstrong proclaimed “one giant leap for mankind,” perhaps he was challenging us to realize that while exploring and seeking knowledge is in our basic nature, so is being good to where we came from and to each other.