“If We Could Put a Man on the Moon …”

by Daniel Brenton on March 15, 2013

in Space

Apollo 17 Landing Site
The landing site of the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17 (Click for full panorama)

    Citing space age triumphs to belittle our terrestrial failures has always been a case of Lunar apples and Earthly oranges. Here’s why.

Start: How many times have you heard that phrase?

“If we could put a man on the Moon … why can’t we end poverty here at home?”

“If we could put a man on the Moon … why can’t we put a stop to the war?”

“… end homelessness?”

“… put an end to racism?”

“… give everyone jobs that needs them?”

And, usually, the argument involves something to do with, “all that money thrown away into space.”

(This last part always struck me as pretty thick, because that money wasn’t getting packed off into space and squandered by Lunar spendthrifts — it was getting used down here.)

In all seriousness this is a good question, but the answer is actually staring right at us, if we’d think about it for a moment.

Lunar (or Martian) Apples and Earthly Oranges

In my last post, about Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars venture, I had a couple of comments here and on Facebook that sounded exactly like this sentiment, dismissing Tito’s idea as a pointless exercise and the use of otherwise valuable resources in a completely misguided way.

I’m not here to defend Tito’s plan (not specifically, anyway), but we’ve heard this kind of empty rhetoric, certainly since the beginning of the American space program. (Some years ago I had a family friend liken NASA to a WPA program for rocket scientists, and I will confess that I understand why anyone who didn’t see value in the space program would take that position.)

The point is: the effort to go to the Moon in the 1960s, or this private venture to send two people around Mars by 2018 cannot be compared to solving the Big Issues, like ending poverty, or solving world hunger.

Not to dismiss the achievements of Project Apollo or the aspirations of Inspiration Mars, but these are engineering problems. Which, generally speaking, were and will be solved by engineering solutions.

We are not going to end homelessness with the skillful application of technology. We are not going to end racism or gender bias by injecting the populace with behavior-modifying nanobots, or by some other technological solution. We are not going to design some vast machine that will crank out jobs like so much sausage, any more than we will create an economy that can provide jobs to everyone that needs or even wants them by throwing money at it, be it space program tax money or the private capital intended for a Mars venture. As Einstein is attributed as saying, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” We haven’t raised our level of thinking as a society, or even as a species, to collectively address the real problems that face us.

These are political and sociological problems. Engineers can’t solve these problems. These are problems that the answers to which are going to require radical changes in our society, and the societies of other nations.

We are going to have to stop being so mindlessly greedy.

We are going to have to start giving a crap about each other, whether we need to or not.

We are going to have to start holding each other accountable when we are clearly incapable of doing either of the above.

And we are going to have to stop the efforts to improve our lot from being befouled by those in power who have agendas that might as well have been conceived by Satan.

“We Choose to go to the Moon …”

John F. Kennedy had a very good reason for calling on America to literally reach for the Moon. This was a challenge he issued to the U.S.S.R. after it had used Sputnik to terrorize America by rubbing its nose in Soviet technological superiority, and the implicit threat of being bombed out of existence by missile-based atomic attack. This challenge redirected the Cold War into space, and defused international tensions to some extent by channelling a part of the rancor into a decade-long battle for the Moon. (When the Soviet Union lost, bad losers that they were, they pretended they were never competing — which, with the breakup of the U.S.S.R., was demonstrated to be a lie of literally astronomical proportions.)

As I’ve stated elsewhere, by doing this, President Kennedy may have saved the human race.

And engineers helped him do it.

Put a price tag on that.

What engineers can do, with their computers and metal alloys and electronics and software, is provide symbols that can capture the imagination of a nation, and even a world. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, we in America — except the hardened naysayers — were unspeakably proud. (I vividly recall CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite shedding tears.)

And outside America was another sentiment that escaped many Americans: we as a race did this. A human being had reached another world, was walking on the surface of a place the human species had dreamed of reaching since it recognized what that shiny thing in the night sky really was.

In the drive to accomplish this, the effort stimulated an interest in the hard sciences, and we are still reaping the benefits of that, the scope of which is so vast it may be impossible to measure. But even for folks like me, that never really conquered higher mathematics or ventured into a career in any technological arena, the cost of the Moon effort — billions of dollars, yes, but an almost trivial percentage of our national budget, despite propaganda to the contrary — was returned by an intangible benefit that I defy anyone to dismiss: our imaginations were stirred, our minds were expanded into dimensions we would never have considered otherwise, and our hearts opened to contemplate what had always been considered impossible.

One Tax-Free Shot of Inspiration: Priceless

Apollo 17 Landing SiteWe’re trapped in a world imploding in on itself, coming head-to-head with greed and power destroying our societies, even our global ecology, grinding those of us on the bottom of the economic food chain to dust. We need to solve these problems, but more important, we need to find it in our demoralized selves to care about solving these problems, because clearly we wouldn’t have let them get this bad if we had given a rat’s ass about them to begin with.

To begrudge the world any inspirational shots in the arm — injections we desperately need — is an act of narrow-mindedness worthy of a Luddite.

If Dennis Tito wants to gather the resources to send two people on a 501 day round trip to circumnavigate Mars, then I wish him all the power at his disposal.

And I pray for its success and bid Godspeed to the future crew of Inspiration Mars.

• • •

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

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