Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. You have probably heard this, because the first moon landing often tops lists of the most significant historical events. It is a cause for celebration of humanity and what we are capable of in the best of times.
Yet many of us ardent space fans have quite mixed feelings about the anniversary, because we have not “been back”. Humanity has not sent a person past low-earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program when Eugene Cernan climbed back into the lunar lander on December 14, 1972.
This is a good time to reflect on our values. It’s not obvious to me that we should have gone to the moon back in 1969. It was ultimately politically motivated, and paid for by taxpayer money. Maybe we should have done something else with that money, like ending the Vietnam war faster. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
But that was then. What should we do now? We get to decide. NASA is currently pursuing a directive to go back to the moon, as they have been many times since 1972. Their failure to get back has a lot of causes, but a major one is that the populace isn’t rallying for it. Constituents rallied for Apollo for as long as it was a competition with the USSR. After a few half-billion dollar Apollo missions, they started getting tired. They started noticing other problems.
How do you want us to be spending our collective economic fruits? If everyone was a clone of me, then the NFL’s $15 billion revenue would instead be used to double NASA’s budget. But I wouldn’t put everything we have into space exploration; there are too many things that matter. How would you allocate it? And how do you want to be spending your own resources? How much do you want to be exploring the world, going on road trips, discovering new and fascinating people and phenomena, and how much do you just want to make sure that your sister feels better when she gets sick?
As mammals we all have deep drives to conserve and ensure our comfort and survival. As humans, we also have something else; something that helps give meaning to survival. Sometimes, it’s just looking at an object on a shelf and thinking, what is this? You pick it up to inspect it with a look in your eyes. You are not and never were going to buy it. You don’t need to use it for a task. There are another hundred thousand objects in this store. You were just curious.
A bird off in the distance is doing something that catches your eye. It’s circling and dancing around a tree top in a strange way. It periodically lands and takes off again. You watch it for a while, thinking about life as a bird. Is it doing a mating dance? Is it looking for its nest? Is it trying to intimidate some other creature? You’re not going to look it up. You’re not going to film it and ask an ornithologist. You’re just curious. You ask your friends who live nearby. They say they think they’ve seen birds doing that when it gets especially hot and dry. Interesting, you say. The conversation moves on. You’re just curious.
You walk down the street and see someone crouched down, painting a tiny flower on a fire hydrant. They look so happy. Two blocks later, you see someone performing gestures of prayer. They look at peace. When you get back to your apartment, you look at your small garden and smile. You decide to tend to it, and while you do, you think about people. What makes them happy? Why do they do what they do? Why do they find things beautiful? As you garden, you decide that you will start asking people. You gaze down onto the street with a look in your eyes.
Sometimes the curiosity is fleeting, and sometimes it lingers. Sometimes it alerts you to a concern. Sometimes it leads you on a half-day quest to understand, and sometimes it lights a fire inside you, and you acquire an almost paralyzing fixation on the question. You drive your car past your house because you are thinking about the question. You change your careers to better investigate the question. You leave your social support network to move across the country to work with others on the question. You establish an institute and you petition policy makers and you become chief administrator of an entire governmental department to answer the damn question.
I don’t know why we look over horizons and wonder what’s beyond, and I don’t know whether it’s ultimately calibrated toward helping the species survive. I don’t know whether we should have gone to the moon in 1969. But when I think of what we’ve done, I feel a joy that can be fueled no other way, and I would be happy for you to join me on our quest to answer these questions. Let us always take care of ourselves and our loved ones along the way, let us always consider the allocation of resources with utmost somberness, and let us never lose that look in our eyes.