Monday, July 20, 2009

If You Believe They Put A Man On The Moon…

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has arrived, and while the NASA boffins and their fans are marking the occasion with the appropriate celebrations, I wonder just what it all means, if anything, to ordinary people. Many of course simply do not believe it ever happened. They believe that it was all a massive deception, despite the fact that there is no rational motive for such a thing, and a massive 400 000 Americans were involved in one way or another in actually making it happen. The idea that it was a conspiracy of such proportions is itself outlandishly unlikely. Any examination of the facts not only leads to the conclusion that it really happened, but also just how amazing the accomplishment really was.

At a time when the future was uncertain, overshadowed by the Vietnam War and the threat of a nuclear world war, President Kennedy’s greatest achievement was not the moon landing itself, but providing the vision, the purpose, and the inspiration to make it happen. In the space of a single decade the space program went from a pie in the sky idea to the most far reaching expedition of all time. It was achieved, not just by spending lots of money, but by effectively managing the project, co-ordinating resources, focusing the combined efforts of almost half a million people, and sheer determination.

Even at the time, and still to this day, many have suggested that the money could have been better spent on feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Certainly the scale of spending was huge, but the criticism is misdirected. Not spending the money on the space program would be no guarantee that it would be put to better use elsewhere. That is not how governments work. The true lesson from the Apollo program should have been that a similar commitment of intellectual capital, rather than financial capital, could achieve the noble goal of ending poverty. It was the sense of purpose that made it happen, not just the dollars and cents.

At the same time, there are literally thousands of benefits that have flowed from the space program, ranging from the well publicized Velcro and Teflon, through to the obvious advances in computers and communication. Other less well known advances in medicine, industrial chemistry, and thousands of other areas, can all be connected to research from the space program. Without the decade of accelerated development in the sixties, life today would be very different. Even the effort to reduce poverty has been advanced by the availability of new technology to improve quality of life.

Now, forty years later, when we ask whether it was all worth it, the question can be seen from a different perspective. Life has changed dramatically since 1969, but not necessarily in the ways that were expected. Travel to the moon has not become routine. There is no Moonbase. There has been no manned landing on Mars. The space program now could be seen as lacking the sense of direction and purpose which it once had. Even the current plans for a return to the moon by 2018 and to land humans on Mars within 50 years have failed to inspire the population, and are subject to constant review which could see them delayed or even dropped altogether.

Here on earth, the story of Apollo has become a quaint page from history, one which runs the risk of becoming little more than the memory of a detour which petered out at a dead end, should the space program ever be cancelled. It is a curiosity, which has little meaning for many people today, and as the years go by there will be fewer and fewer people left who were alive at the time that it all happened. In some ways it marks a high point from which humanity seems to have retreated.

While we have more and better technology now, it is easy to think that we are doing less with it. Where are the bold visions for a better future? Where are the ambitions to inspire, not just a nation, but all nations? Where is the John F. Kennedy of our time who not only has the bold vision we need, but also the persuasiveness, charm and perseverance to make such visions reality? Sadly, such men are rare, and if we are to achieve such greatness in our time we need to find something we have lost. We need not just a goal, but a positive purpose which will inspire us all.

That is the true legacy of Apollo 11.

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