by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: 090721GOODBYEMO
Date: 01 August 2009
Links: NASA: First Footprint On The Moon / NASA's Six Lunar Exploration Themes /
Forty years ago today, we left the moon. We'd come, we'd seen, we'd conquered, and we've got the t-shirt to prove it. So we went home.
Native American Chief Seattle (for whom the city was named) said, "Take only memories, leave only footprints." Well, we left considerably more than footprints on the moon, but depending on your point of view, it's either trash or treasure. Still, the image of Neil Armstrong's first footprint is one of the most iconic images of the space age.
Without embellishment, it attests, "We were here."
Neither the American flag, stretched on its stiff hanger, nor the "We Came In Peace For All Mankind" plaque, nor the field of debris left behind say it any better or clearer. We were here.
And now we're gone.
Humans have returned to the moon six times as of this writing, all in the continuation of the Apollo program, and all by the end of 1972. Really though, when the Eagle blasted off from the Sea of Tranquility, the world's attention wandered back to earth, and never returned. The only suspense, danger, and wealth we found were those we created in getting there, and the more often we tried to repeat the experience the more likely the odds would go against us. The Vietnam war, which coincided with the Apollo program, was a war we never planned to win. We went, we fought, we held ground, but unless you mean to stay, it can never be yours. We never meant to stay on the moon, and it's not really ours.
I'm not against manned space exploration. In fact, I'm all for it. I'm also for the scaling of mountains, the probing of deep sea trenches, and the smashing of atoms to see what they're made of.
Though adventure is not the domain of governments, it's a worthwhile human endeavor. The X-Prize was a brilliant way to encourage spaceflight, and the Lunar X-Prize is a brilliant next step. Yes, it does call for a robot on the moon, but it's clearly a stepping stone to the next prize, and the one beyond that.
Defense is a job for governments, and we live on a fragile ball of rock, with plenty of other chunks of rock whizzing around the neighborhood, not to mention the unknown dangers that lurk in space. Robotic probes are the clear tool for preliminary exploration of both Near Earth Objects and distant regions of space. When the need for humans on site becomes apparent, the infrastructure we've developed for robotic exploration will no doubt come in handy.
Governments have a number of valid functions, and exploration has always been one of them. Historically, exploration was the precursor to conquest and colonization, and we've framed the space race in those terms as well. But is this framework valid for the new century? Are we in a race to secure the best land for ourselves so we can deny its resources to the rest of the world? It seems like an outmoded model.
Unless, of course, it's the model other countries, most notably China, is planning on using.
I'm all for a return to the moon, eventually, but this time I'd like to see us work with the rest of the world to get there, and to put the capability of interplanetary travel within the reach of all nations, rather than just ours. And while we're at it, I'd like to see commercial contractors take us there, so that the means become accessible to the people, not just governments.