My admitted sadness from the death of Neil Armstrong has been received in a way I didn’t expect. A lot of people have asked me why it was such a big deal and what made me feel so personally affected by it. Obviously, Neil Armstrong was a great guy, a highly accomplished test pilot and astronaut and someone who was willing to take on a mission of unknown dangers and extreme demands. But why is it so sad for me, personally? I never knew him. He was 82, hardly a young age, and he died peacefully of natural causes. Great, heroic people die all the time, and sad though it may be, we can’t sit around getting depressed over it.
So let me explain my reason for such sadness:
The Apollo program is often held up as the prime example of the United States and indeed Western Civilization at its best. A goal of the grandest of proportions was proposed and achieved, in a relatively short period of time, with overwhelming success. Only six missions landed on the moon from 1969 to 1972, but those few missions provided some of the greatest photographs, films and accounts humanity has ever known.
The Apollo Program is over. That in itself is not tragic, as it was expensive and could not last forever. What is tragic is what the past forty years of space exploration have been. Lacking leadership, necessary finances and a worthy goal, NASA has wallowed as an agency with an uncertain future. No serious attempt to reestablish deep space exploration has been undertaken since the Apollo Program. After Apollo came Skylab, a brief, but accomplished program using Apollo technology. But would become so underfunded and ill equipped that once they ran out of suitable surplus Apollo hardware, they had literally no way of getting to the space station, resulting in it crashing to earth. Next came the Shuttle, a spacecraft with the worthy goal of making access to orbit cheaper and safer, but built with such design compromise that it achieved neither.
Today we have an agency in crisis. Plans for exploration in deep space have been scaled back and have a questionable future. While the rover Curiosity has been a triumph, the future of unmanned space exploration is uncertain. NASA has spent more than thirty years perusing projects that produced little more than artist conceptual drawings before being scrapped. We cannot even send a man into low earth orbit, much less beyond earth orbit.
Neil Armstrong was the greatest icon of the glory days of space exploration, and his past is yet another step away from that past. With every death, the Apollo program is pushed further into our past. Though he was the best known, the first, the most iconic of the men to walk on the moon, there were others. Twelve men explored the surface of the moon. Most of them (eight in total) are still alive, although now one less. These men are getting older, the youngest being in their late seventies. This, of course, won’t last forever. There may not be any left in ten years. Walking on the moon has thus passed from human memory to history.
Those who walked on the moon so many years ago believed they stood on the cusp of a new age of exploration and that they would live to see many more missions. Sadly, Neil Armstrong would not live to see humans return to the moon, at least not after Apollo-17. He would also not live to see the space program once again receive the funding, recognition and mission goals it deserves. He died in an era of turmoil and uncertainty for space exploration. That is tragic.
This entry was posted on Sunday, August 26th, 2012 at 3:41 pm and is filed under Space, personal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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