Back to the Future, This Time to Stay
A rocket launch is transfixing, especially when you are there to see the main engine ignite, sun-bright in an angry outburst of smoke, the slow first upward strain followed, seconds later, by a rush of rib-rattling sound as the slender tower of controlled rumbling fire jumps smoothly skyward and so soon leaves us behind to contemplate its silently dissipating trail.
I was not in Florida for the picture perfect June launch of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, but I had the thrill of watching it on a giant hi-def screen with a hall full of excited kids at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Young faces stunned into stillness by the magnificent sight reminded me of how the Apollo project inspired me in grade school, framing my views of the future and limitless human possibilities. The Apollo 11 landing was bigger than history, and bigger than most stuff of legends. It was an evolutionary step, and even as children we saw that.
My nerdy high school friends and I hoped to live and work in space, orbiting an enlightened, peaceful world. But America soon stopped going to the moon, and I learned that Apollo was largely funded as a demonstration of Cold War military prowess. The point made, the program died, leaving us with unrequited plans, rusting rockets, and 842 pounds of Moon rocks with which to piece together a new origin story and a rough draft of Solar System history. A lot of kids followed Apollo into space and kept going, learning to do more with less, exploring the planets with sensor-packed robot probes. We taught university students who were not alive during Apollo, for whom our once-bright future seems a quaint and dusty history lesson.
Now young space dreamers who grok the significance of Apollo are jealous that we went to the moon and they didn’t. But with LRO, which will produce the best maps of the Moon yet, the U.S. begins a new program of robotic and eventually manned and womanned exploration and inhabitation, and joins an international movement that includes new Lunar launches by Europe, Japan, China and India. Immediately after the launch, I was chatting online with my Portuguese friend Rui Borges (see his “Beyond the Cradle” blog) who said “When Mankind reached the Moon I was still 5 years away from landing on Earth, but I look at those images as something so magnificent in their symbolism and ingenuity that I always asked myself when I was a child why were we not there. Now my generation is witnessing the first steps to build a solid bridge that will permit us to go Beyond. It will take time but we will do it.”
Yes, and in many ways it will actually be much better this time. Because not only are we returning to the moon for the right reasons, for curiosity, knowledge of origins and the possibility of an expansive human future, but this time around our cameras and communications are so much better. When astronauts do again start going to the Moon and farther afield, there will be a host of unprecedented ways for others to share in the experience, as grainy fuzzed out black and white ghost images are replaced with real-time high-definition immersive broadcasts, and the vicarious thrill ride becomes virtually real.
This time we will go to stay, and the technological democratizing of experience means that that more than ever the knowledge and wonder will be for all humankind.