Editor's note: Neil Armstrong, who gained international recognition in 1969 as the commander of the first mission to land on the moon, died Saturday. This column originally appeared July 16, 2009, as the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon approached.
Forty years ago July 20th, I wasn't anywhere particularly memorable during the first landing of humans on the moon — like most everyone else, I was watching TV in my family's living room. But I well remember my conflicted emotions. Enormous excitement and pride in the "giant leap" and a sense that we were on the threshold of a long-promised Star Trek-style future. But I was also worried that we'd screw it up.
I was an opinionated, sometimes obnoxiously so, 15-year-old in 1969 who was already fully engaged with the culture and politics of that time. I followed the election of 1968 closely (I was for Bobby Kennedy, then Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon). I had already marched in anti-Vietnam War protests, smoked my first joint, seen the Jefferson Airplane. Like many of the Woodstock generation, my view of technology and science was very conflicted.
The man-on-the-moon moment came at a time when it seemed to both fulfill the promise of the New Frontier and John F. Kennedy's dream of civic and scientific accomplishment. But Kennedy was dead, Nixon was now running both JFK's war and his space program, and the technologies of death seemed to overshadow the technological good the Space Age represented to many of us Boomers.
For kids in Seattle, Florida space launches were about as far away as geographically possible in the continental U.S., but the New Frontier had been brought closer by the 1962 Seattle world's fair which had been billed as the "launch pad" for the Space Age. Bigger celebrities than Elvis had come to the fair, including Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, second man to orbit the earth, astronaut John Glenn, the first American in orbit, who came along with his space capsule, Friendship 7 which the public could see and touch. Boeing was also deeply involved in the space program, including the Apollo missions. It was the Boeing-built lunar orbiter that took the famous picture of the earth rising over the moon. Such "big blue marble" views of the planet came to symbolize Earth Day and a new way of looking at home.
The Sixties counter-culture was divided on the space program. Some saw technological progress as a positive. It helped us think globally about the earth as a unique and delicate ecosystem. Other progressives saw it as good for science and technological advancement. In the '70s, it was then-California governor Jerry Brown's notion of starting a state space academy and launching the Golden State's own communications satellite that gained him the unflattering nickname, "Governor Moonbeam." Apparently, if liberals saw promise in space it was merely another example of their lack of realism. Even many liberals pooh-poohed the space program as polluting, militaristic, and a waste of resources that could help feed people.
The Apollo program after the moon landing didn't help itself image-wise with Boomers whose loyalties to NASA might have been conflicted. Watching astronauts golf on the moon and drive around in their Boeing-made dune buggy hardly sent the message that our colonization would be any different than, say, suburban sprawl in the Sun Belt. Build a moon base and it'll probably soon look like Houston.
That sense informed my teenage skepticism here on earth: we've landed on the moon, now what? The '60s in Seattle were a time of growing environmental awareness, and also backlash against the post-World War II promises of progress. Grassroots groups fought to clean-up sewage flowing into Lake Washington. Citizens banned together to stop a new freeway through the Arboretum and many Seattleites opposed a second I-90 floating bridge across the lake. Progressives pushed for mass transit. People decried the Los Angelesization of central Puget Sound. How would going to the moon help us with these problems? Would the men on the moon simply spread malignant "progress" to another planet?
The skepticism was captured in a pamphlet on the Puget Sound Region summing up the state of things for the year 1967-1968 produced by the Puget Sound League of Women Voters:
With the tremendous growth [of the '40s and '50s] comes equally great waste production, with pollution and congestion of the environment by the waste products of our immense technology. The difference between the level of technological ability and the concern for the environment is summed up in the caustic prediction that "Americas will soon be standing in waste up to their knees, launching rockets to the moon."
Waste is still with us, though the Nixon-era also brought us the Environmental Protection Agency. And we are knee deep in pollution with a warming planet and a toxic Puget Sound. But satellites have also given us important data and tools for understanding climate change, as sequential photos of the melting polar ice caps have dramatized.
As for launching rockets to the moon, no one would have predicted on July 20, 1969 that our reach into the solar system would have ended so ignominiously. A few trips and the moon was dubbed boring, at best a launch pad to Mars, at worst, a big rock, too expensive to get to and not exploitable. It's as if Christopher Columbus had shrugged his shoulders and said, "Oh, nevermind." The subsequent centerpiece of manned space flight, the Space Shuttle program, has all the glamor of watching Metro buses. Ice road trucking in Alaska seems more adventurous.
To me, the magic moment of '69 is how the romantic and realistic, the objective and subjective, the scientific and the poetic, the practical and spiritual were found in one experience. As the whole world watched on television, we saw not only the heights of technology, but a moment in which an ancient dream was fulfilled. We had built a rocket and launched humans to the hem of heaven.
Space lives today in political metaphor. George H.W. Bush cited a "thousand points of light" to promote volunteerism as if it were written in the stars. Kennedy's rallying of America to a common purpose is invoked to inspire us to solve huge problems. Bill Clinton ran for president with a photo of himself as a teenager receiving a kind New Frontier blessing from JFK. Barack Obama is seen by many (judging from campaign buttons) as the new Kennedy. The "New Apollo Program" is touted by Seattle Congressman Jay Inslee who cites it as a way to do for the environment what the original program did for the nation. Today's Apollo is earth-bound, devoted to creating a new, sustainable energy future. He writes in a recent editorial:
[A]t the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy vowed before Congress that the United States would send a man to the moon and back before the end of the 1960s. His statement was bold, imaginative and, at the time, a gamble. But Kennedy recognized America’s innovative zeal, and the challenges were met.... [W]e still have the ability to launch a technological revolution, as we did in 1961.
The problem with such allusions is that few earthly things compare with human planetary exploration. For all its importance, setting up arrays of wind turbines or solar panels pales in comparison with men bouncing along on the Sea of Tranquility. Much of what needs to be done on earth is critically important, but unglamorous, without that giant leap moment for all mankind to see. Some of what needs to be done is dirty work. We need top engineers to help clean up Hanford, but I'd wager most would rather spend their careers building Martian colonies than cleaning up the mess left by past generations. We need newer, cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy, but I question whether New Frontier rhetoric will mobilize us to do earth's housework.
Some see the space program as a kind of insurance for failure here on earth: the need to go outward, to colonize new planets is a matter of survival. If we've touched heaven, we're also preparing for the end of our blue-marbled Eden. If our delicate marble fails, the space program is our Noah's Ark. Fear is a big motivator. It helped fuel the space race too, pushing Cold War competition between the U.S. and the Soviets. It's hard to say what will galvanize us again, but a combination of fear, inspiration, spirit, poetry, science, heroism and material gain will all have to be part of the mix.
That's not easy to duplicate. Jack Shafer captured that at the end of a review of recent moon books for kids in the New York Times Book Review, writing that "the long ago years of the space race still feel more like the future than anything on the horizon." It's a future that will be hard to get back to.