Today is the 50thanniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon with Michael Collins staying in orbit. (Since I first read about the Apollo 11 mission as a kid, I’ve always felt bad for Collins who went all the way to the moon without going for a walk!)
Usually statements like “one of the most amazing achievements in human history” are hyperbole, but in this case it’s completely true. The moon landing is well worth celebrating today. Have a party, raise a quiet toast to humanity, read NASA’s account here, or take a moment to glance at the moon and think, “God damn, humans went there!”
While celebration is a big part of this anniversary, for me it prompts the question: where are we 50 years later both when it comes to space exploration and our general condition here on Earth?
Space exploration, to put it mildly, has not gone the way many science fiction fans (including myself) have hoped. Sure, we have the International Space Station and robotic missions to Mars and the rest of the solar system. Voyager 1 and 2 are now in interstellar space. But no humans have been to the moon since 1972, and there have been no human missions elsewhere. For people who read the great mid-20th century science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, this seems like a huge disappointment. We were supposed to be living on the moon and Mars by now. Instead we got Twitter and Apple watches.
But is space exploration all that great a thing, anyway? Sending humans into space is extremely expensive and dangerous, as my first major space memory, the Challenger disaster, demonstrates. Would we be better off turning our attention to Earthly matters? Why go to space when huge issues like poverty and climate change demand our attention here on Earth? I’m not sure.
I admit that a lot of my love of space exploration stems from a romantic feeling, which is in turn spurred by my love of science fiction. But it’s that very love of science fiction that tells me that venturing into space just might tell us a lot both about the universe and about ourselves (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels for a bit on both fronts). And as Octavia Butler suggested in her Earthseed duology, maybe we need a big goal like space exploration to keep us focused on something better than historical human preoccupations like killing and exploiting each other.
And for that matter, how are things here on Earth 50 years later? The late 1960’s was a tumultuous era on Earth, times which it seems like we are re-entering today. For sake of simplicity and familiarity, I’ll limit myself to the USA, but much could be said in many other places throughout the world (India, Brazil, Europe, etc.).
Who would have thought that 51 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. we would have actual Nazis marching in the streets of America, emboldened by a sitting President who regularly says racist things and enforces cruel, racist immigration policies? Who could have predicted 46 years after Roe v. Wade that many states would be instituting some of the harshest restrictions on abortion to date, or that 50 years after Stonewall it would still be legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ in over half the country? Or that 55 years after Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, we would possibly be returning to 1920’s levels of economic inequality?
Given the resurgence, or at least increased visibility, of morally regressive tendencies in the last few years, how far have we really come in the last 50 years? Interestingly, Octavia Butler maybe could have predicted this, given her depiction of a Presidential candidate who wanted to “make America great again.”
I don’t need to continue spelling things out. The last few years have been a huge disappointment, at least for progressive types, many of whom, like me, have in retrospect been a bit naïve.
Yet, here’s a consideration: The fact that so many people are so disgusted is itself a good sign. If everybody was on board with the recent surge in bigotry and injustice, nobody would be noticing or speaking out or complaining about it. This feeling of despondency itself contains the seed of something better, a measure of where we might go, to hitherto unexplored territories of justice.
And maybe, just maybe, this spirit of pushing boundaries, of – dare I say it? – going where no one has gone before, is where something like space exploration and true justice for all coincide. We’ve never had a reasonably just society and we’ve never adequately explored our extraterrestrial neighborhood. We’ve had brief glimpses of both so far in science, science fiction, and social movements.
So, maybe the moon landing of July 20, 1969 can represent our glimpses of new and better things for humanity. It is with this hope that I celebrate today.