Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty Years Ago Today

No self-respecting space junkie could let today go unremarked. And no self-respecting blogger would ramble on when Peggy Noonan has already written what he had hoped to say:

Everyone is noting the 40th anniversary, on July 20, of the moon landing. Good. It was an epic moment in history, though its memory is accompanied by an unsatisfied feeling, as if Columbus came to America and then no one followed. People will ask again why we've stopped visiting other places and have instead spent the past few decades watching the space shuttle orbit the Earth. There are many reasons for this (budgets, the end of the space race, an inability to understand the human imagination) but let me throw forward this one: The space program of the past 32 years unconsciously mirrored a change in American psychology. Once, we saw ourselves as a breakthrough people, a nation with a mission to push beyond ourselves. Now, in the age of soft narcissism, we just circle ourselves. Which is what the shuttle does: It is on an endless loop, going 'round and 'round and looking down at: us.

We should take our eyes off ourselves. We should go someplace again. It would remind us who we've been, which would remind us who we are.

Something about the steely-eyed rocket men of the Mercury and Apollo programs: They weren't criers. Now, on TV every day as people remember some trauma or triumph, they stop as if on cue—they know this is expected of them—and weep. They think this shows sincerity and sensitivity. But they feel too much about their struggles. I sometimes watch with fascination those shows where people lose weight. They often begin to sob as they fall off the treadmill or remember the Twinkie they didn't eat. This is now the national style. It makes Europeans laugh. When they're about to be mawkish or overly emotional they say, "I don't mean to get American on you." The men who took the moon will be all over TV the next few days. I bet they don't cry as they remember "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed." How moving their dry eyes will be.
Then again, if anything is worth a not-quite-dry eye, isn't this?

Take a good look, and be reminded of who we could be again.

UPDATE: From William Katz:
The flight to the moon celebrated American greatness - imagination, capability, determination. President Kennedy had set the goal, and the goal was reached. Few Americans complained about the cost because they understood that there was something larger than material gain in the moon flight - there was a spiritual quest that defines, more than budgets and scientific equations, a great nation.

Are we a great nation today? Of course we are. But we are suffering under the weight of failing institutions - our universities, our media - that are diminishing our greatness, and even mocking it. After all, the most covered story of 1969 was the flight to the moon. The most covered story so far in 2009 was the death of Michael Jackson. Please compare.
UPDATE II: Video of the Apollo astronauts calling for a mission to Mars, and related thoughts from Boris Johnson, here. Though given the tragic history of the Shuttle program, I think Boris is a little over the top with his idea that the safety ninnies are keeping us from returning to the moon and beyond.

UPDATE III: More from William Katz:
[R]emarkably, one quarter of all young people believe it was a hoax. What a comment on the "educational" system that serves us, and which has, in the four decades since the depressing sixties, done so much to tear down the image of America in the minds of its young.
UPDATE IV: Video of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin punching out that guy who kept arguing that the Moon Landing was a hoax.

UPDATE V: Forty years ago, the big space story was the first steps of humanity on the Moon. Today, the big space story is an "out of service" toilet on the International Space Station. Doesn't that just say it all?