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There is a very serious question, I think, whether human feet will tread on any other planet or moon within the next century
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that put humans on the surface of another celestial body for the first time. The anniversary of the landing is Saturday. These events were recognized at the time as the culmination of a golden age of space exploration. What has perhaps changed in the meantime is that we are compelled to leave out the word “space” — 1969, or perhaps the end of the final Apollo mission in December 1972, demarcate the end of a historical phase which began with Columbus.
After all, we haven’t been back. We keep saying we’ll go back; American presidents keep announcing plans to go back, or to spring further and put boots on Mars. (Boots, those most notorious of fetish objects …) In books and movies our dreams of manned space exploration are rehearsed ad nauseam. Well, here is the 50th frickin’ anniversary, friends. There is no getting around that kind of timespan, no possibility of denial: 50 years adds up to history itself.
This is not really a question of failure, but a matter of human knowledge and technological capability going down other paths, ones as astonishing as the Apollo generation could have imagined. But if you are caught in the dream of the explorer-hero, the discoverer-devourer, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 can only be haunting and disturbing to you. Call it Columbian anxiety.
There is a very serious question, I think, whether human feet will tread on any other planet or moon within the next century. When plans are proposed, they come with little caveats like “Of course we can send you to Mars, but it would be a one-way trip.” Private spaceflight beyond low earth orbit is, for now, all talk. What else could show more clearly that it is a question of mere anxiety — of wishing to make a point, to assert that we are still as ambitious and courageous as our ancestors?
The Apollo program had goals of political prestige, scientific study, and, for all anybody knew, testing the promise of future resource exploitation. The political ambitions have descended to other civilizations — particularly that of China, which talks about putting men on the lunar surface but doesn’t seem especially close to doing it. Earlier this year the Chinese used a satellite relay to make the first real-time data transmission from the surface of the Moon’s far side; this was impressive, but it didn’t demonstrate any capability that NASA — or for that matter the Canadian Space Agency — hasn’t possessed in principle for decades. In other words, not to deny the Chinese credit or praise, it was an act of patriotic display, of limited meaning for the human species as a whole.
Commercial exploitation of the Moon doesn’t appear cost-effective for now. That would depend on lowering the costs of putting matter in orbit and beyond, and that is the unheroic work of brute capitalism. Such research will never have the special Columbian glamour of “exploration”; moreover, the buccaneer businessmen now taking steps in that direction have chosen to perfect the rocket technology of the Apollo era that dates back, conceptually, to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). There is still much to be learned about and on the moon, but what there is can be handled by unmanned craft. One feature of the past 50 years is that humans have become self-consciously McLuhanite: we recognize our media extensions — spacefaring robots — as fully human, to the point of anthropmorphizing and sentimentalizing them.
I would put these six words in boldface if my editors would let me get away with it: this is all to the good. I say this as a paid-up, fully addicted wholesale buyer of the Apollo legend. Terrifying amounts of my free time in the last few months have been consumed by apolloinrealtime.org, a website that has taken the public-domain audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission, figured out the confusing tape labels, cleaned up the sound, and organized the lot.
I was already a fan of the recordings before NASA consultant (and Trent U graduate) Ben Feist put them in order behind a glorious web interface; he is just one of the few thousand or so bigger Apollo nerds than myself. The site includes tape recordings made at every individual console in mission control, so you can replay the entire duration of the mission from the vantage point of any individual controller, including the CAPCOM and the flight director. (One nice thing about this is that there might be a hundred clinching arguments that the moon landings weren’t faked, but this is a fairly convincing one that you can actually show to a stupid person.)
Much of the volume of this material is dull even to me; because the U.S. space program was not yet confident in its inertial guidance tech at the time of Apollo 11, much of the audio record of the mission documents the continuous struggle to make sure the spacecraft (or -crafts, when undocked) had the correct “state vector.” There is much reciting and counter-reciting of digits. It is not very good entertainment per se after 50 years, but it can be appreciated as a cherished antique, like a well-bound, well-loved book. Many of the voices in the recordings are those of men still living, yet in some respects they are as distant from us as Eagle and Columbia were from Houston.