Big milestone coming up: Next July, the 20th to be exact, will be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. In the run-up to it, look for lots of nostalgic hand-wringing about the supposedly sorry state of the manned space program.
To be sure, it hasn’t all turned out as advertised by mid-20th century science fiction writers and filmmakers. Unlike “2001: A Space Odyssey,” there are no gigantic space stations wheeling to the strains of “The Blue Danube” waltz, no colonies on the Moon, no manned missions to Jupiter in search of alien intelligence.
What we have instead is the aging International Space Station, reached only by relying on Russian rockets and spacecraft. Who could possibly have foreseen this outcome when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins splashed down southwest of Hawaii after their triumphant eight-day mission?
But don’t count me among the hand-wringers.
My personal space odyssey took me in a different direction.
I was nine when John Glenn made his three orbits of the earth on February 20, 1962, watching Walter Cronkite narrate history on the family’s hulking black and white TV, crammed with vacuum tubes. I had a flat-top, a skateboard and a paper route, and I was mad about space. I knew all the Mercury astronauts’ names, and I watched every Mercury mission, every Gemini launch, every spacewalk and rendezvous.
By 1969, I’d grown my hair out and was playing a bit part in the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll revolution transforming the U.S. But I was still a space nut. The moon landing was such a long-awaited and sacred moment that I had to experience it alone—with the family’s transistor radio on a deserted beach at a nearby lake in far northern California. I wanted and needed to be alone for such a deeply profound moment. It wasn’t a soccer match or an assassination, to cheer or share hugs and tears with others.
In the decades since then I never lost my enthusiasm or interest in space. But somewhere along the way I had a quiet epiphany about man in space. Man, I came to realize, is largely superfluous, unsuited for long missions, and he (or she) makes space travel prohibitively expensive.
I came to wonder: What did we actually accomplish by going to the Moon? Was it really much more than a Cold War stunt designed to pay the Soviets back for Sputnik? What real advances did Skylab yield, except as a stopgap excuse for a bigger NASA budget? Can anyone really say what the mission of the International Space Station is?
The excitement and awe I felt as an adolescent about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs endures—but it’s been transferred to the unmanned space program. Unlike the dubious accomplishments of man in space, we can all see how satellites, space probes and orbiting observatories have changed life on earth and expanded our understanding and knowledge of our home planet as well as the cosmos.
The list of accomplishments by unmanned satellites, probes and observatories is too large to catalogue. Herewith are a few that have resonated with me.
Probes like Voyager 1 and 2 have explored the swirling clouds of Jupiter and the rings and moons of Saturn. They have buzzed asteroids and comets, roamed the deserts of Mars and peered deeply into our Sun’s atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray observatory have looked far back in time to the distant edges of the observable universe, mapped black holes and neutron stars, and taught us—creatures made of star stuff— about the birth and death of stars and galaxies.
The same rush I felt when Apollo 11 descended to the lunar surface and landed on the Sea of Tranquility (a deeply ironic destination given the tumult of late 60s) I now feel when the nerds at JPL jubilantly celebrate the landing of another craft on Mars.
For me, the picture of the human boot print in the lunar dust pales in comparison with the Hubble Deep Field, a startling composite image of a tiny point in the constellation Ursa Major, one 24-millionth of the whole sky, that reveals more than 3,000 objects, most of them very young and distant galaxies.
I still marvel at the power of the earth-shaking Saturn V moon rocket, a symbol of late-60s American technological might. But I find even more amazing SpaceX’s reusable Falcon rocket. After launching 64 tiny satellites recently, its spent booster made a powered descent through the atmosphere and a pin-point landing on a drone ship in the ocean, a now almost routine occurrence.
A month doesn’t go by that I don’t think of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977, recently leaving the solar system after making a gravity-assisted grand tour of the outer planets. I was part of the press corps at JPL in Pasadena when Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in the summer of 1989, a moment I treasure as much as those fortunate enough to have witnessed a Saturn V launch.
What is the legacy of the unmanned space program? Most importantly, our world is much smaller because of it. Without communications satellites there would be no satellite phones and other uplinks that make virtually every corner of the earth accessible in real time.
Satellites mean infinitely better weather forecasts. They help us map natural resources and uncover ancient civilizations previously obscured by jungle, sea or sand. They facilitate global finance, trade, shipping and the Internet. They feed the 24/7 television news cycle. Everyone carries GPS in their pocket these days.
All this most people take for granted today. But I don’t. I’m old enough to remember those first ghostly “live” satellite images from Europe and Japan.
In the summer of 1967, as part of a first-of-its kind global television broadcast called “Our World,” the Beatles were captured live in the studio recording “All You Need Is Love.” The program was a triumph of coordination and logistics. No big deal today. All you need is satellites.
So, no, I’m not pining for a mission to Mars or a human colony on the dark side of the Moon. These may come in my lifetime, but probably not. I am content.
When it comes to what we’ve accomplished as a species in space, we have gotten a much bigger bang for our buck without man on board.
Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii.
FreedomFestForum is a publication of FreedomFest, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds,” held at Paris Resort Las Vegas July 17-20, 2019. On July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, authors of Apollo: Race to the Moon, will speak about the moon landing. For ticket information, go to www.freedomfest.com.