This essay first appeared on Stonekettle Station on July 20, 2009, the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Nothing has changed since.
Houston, Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.
Forty-five years ago today, the entire world listened as Neil Armstrong spoke those words from the surface of the Moon.
Eagle, that fragile tinker-toy of a spaceship, had just set down on the dusty regolith of the Mare Tranquillitatis and it wasn’t just Mission Control who had been holding their collective breath, but the entire population of planet Earth – with those words, we all started breathing again.
In that one moment, the entire human race was as close to united as it has ever been, black, white, brown, yellow and red, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheists, and agnostics, from the most sophisticated rocket scientists at NASA and Star City to the most primitive bushman, capitalists and communists and socialists and the left and the right and the undecided all stared at the moon in abject wonder and shivered at the smallness of man against the vast and terrible backdrop of the universe. They cried and they cheered and they hugged random strangers in the streets. They marveled at what men could do if only they dared dream big enough and they all wished the crew of Apollo 11 Godspeed.
A few hours later we watched as Armstrong and Aldrin opened the hatch and descended the ladder and made the first foot prints on the surface of a world other than Earth.
There was a silver plaque mounted on the side of the LEM’s descent stage, it said:
Here, men from the planet Earth
first set foot upon the moon
July 1969 A.D.
We came in peace, for all mankind.
Beneath those words were the signatures of Apollo 11’s crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, and the President of the United States, Richard Nixon.
It was as if ten thousand years of recorded history, of centuries of scientific advance, of decades of effort, and the dreams of millions had come together in that one moment solely in order to place that message on the surface of another world. You could feel it. Hell, even as a seven year old kid, I could feel it. In that moment the world was different – men had walked upon the surface of another world and everything was about to change. Before that pivotal event our dreams had been limited to the near horizons of Earth, but in that moment our vision was limitless and the whole universe spread out before us. Mars would be next, and the moons of Jupiter, and then Saturn. There was talk of ships that could lift whole colonies, hundreds of people, into space, Orion, rising on a column of atomic fire and even of an unmanned probe to the near stars, Daedalus.
Men had walked on the Moon and there was nothing that we could not do.
It sounds impossible now, ships like Orion, giant stations in orbit wheeling against the stars, colonies on the moon, on Mars – but in 1969 it didn’t seem so. Less than eight years before, John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, “We choose to go to the Moon. We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard!” Damn straight. And we did. We kept the promise and the vision of a murdered president, a promise made in one of the darkest hours of our history, the Cuban Missile Crisis. We kept the promise despite the turmoil of that terrible decade, the battle for civil rights, the radically changing culture, the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the threat of imminent nuclear Armageddon. And in less than nine years we went from barely making it into low Earth orbit to the Moon itself.
We choose to go to the moon, you damned right we do.
In 1969, nothing seemed impossible. We would walk the surface of other worlds, we would build our homes there and birth our children there and dream our own dreams. People believed.
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins came home to parades and the adulations of billions. Six missions followed them to the moon, five landed.
But, by 1974 it was over, all of it.
The hippy dreams of the sixties were lost in the reality of drug addiction and venereal disease and Charlie Mason, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and we had retreated from Vietnam leaving 50,000 of our countrymen dead on the battlefield. And in far less than five years flights to the moon had become so routine, so boring, that they weren’t even covered by the media. In that five years the dreamers and the engineers and the scientists and the astronauts and the men with the Right Stuff were replaced with accountants and administrators and bureaucrats and those with no imagination.
Somewhere in that five years the dreams of 1969 died and no one even noticed.
The last men to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, lifted off in their ship Challenger from the Sea of Serenity on December 14th, 1972. And when they, and Command Ship pilot Ron Evans, returned to Earth in America, it would be the last time human beings would leave low Earth orbit.
There were supposed to be three more missions, Apollo 18, 19, 20 – and follow on programs after that, building on the success of Apollo.
The ship that would have become Apollo 18, a fully operational moonship, rests on its side now, moldering and covered in bird shit on the grass in front of Johnson Space Flight Center – The mightiest machine ever built by the hands of man, a ship designed to land men on the surface of another world and bring them home safely again, the culmination of the skill and daring and dreams of millions is now nothing more than the largest and most expensive lawn decoration in the history of mankind. A testament to failed dreams and the cowardice of politicians and the small horizons our children are born beneath today.
Pieces of the ship that might have become Apollo 19 rest now in a similar display on the lawn in front of Kennedy Space Center. That display is made of bits and pieces, some operational and some not, a junk sculpture made from the debris of our dreams, things that could have been and never were.
Apollo 20 was never built, the command module and lunar modules were scrapped, the uncompleted carcasses dumped in a landfill. Pieces of the Apollo program were locked away forgotten in dusty storerooms or sold off to museums. Some components were later used for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous – sort of like using a semi-truck to deliver the mail and just about as foolish and wasteful.
I’ve been to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and I’ve seen the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, scarred and pitted, resting beside the great machines of history, the Wright Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Bell X-1, the Voyager, and Spaceship One and the sight brings tears to my eyes for all the things man has dared and done. And I’ve been to Florida and Texas and I’ve seen our future out there rusting in the sun and the rain and the sight fills me with revulsion and disgust and sadness for all the things we could have done, and did not.
As a kid, I heard great men say that the stars would belong to my generation, I watched brave men walk on the surface of another world and dared to believe that I too would do so some day. That belief has filled me with wonder my whole life and driven me to far ends of the Earth in search of adventure and mystery and far distant shores. That desire filled me with great dreams and instilled in me a belief that men can achieve anything if they only believe, if they only have the courage to try, if they only have the will to seek new horizons and push the edge of the safe and the known. I firmly believe that the meek shall inherit the Earth, and that they are welcome to it - but the rest of the universe belongs to those willing to risk all in order to see what is beyond the next hill.
As a teenager, I watched cowardly men protest that the cost was too great and the price too high, and I watched those selfish fearful sons of bitches dismantle the space program and turn our future into lawn ornaments. I wondered then, and I still wonder now, how if we cannot afford to build a future for all of mankind how then can we afford to spend twice as much in order to build those weapons that would destroy all of mankind? In the last thirty years we Americans have built exactly five manned spacecraft. Five, and one of those only as a grudging replacement for the lost Challenger. Columbia we chose not to replace. America relies now on Russian built craft and has no manned ships of her own at all. In the last thirty years however, we've built thousands of nuclear bombs. Thousands. We've built hideously expensive invisible airplanes that we can't even use. We are even now dismantling many of those bombs and missiles and I am grateful that it is so, but, my God, the colossal waste, the colossal folly of it all. Funny that we can afford to build our own destruction, but not our own future. Funny, and tragic, and ironic, isn’t it?
As an adult I’ve watched our halfhearted efforts to stay in space, to keep thirty year old technology flying, and build a space station that instead of housing thousands, or even hundreds, or even tens, can barely support three - ironically the same number who went to the moon in a tiny capsule four decades ago and the same number who flew onboard Skylab twenty five years ago. Three seems to be the limit of NASA’s vision. As an adult I've watched as robots and machines roll across alien land in place of the men and woman who sent them, and it is no more exciting or inspiring than watching a video game. As an adult I’ve watched my dreams fade and die and know that I will never walk the surface of another world, and yet I look up there at the moon and still dare hope that some day we will see the lights of cities shining back from that shadowed crescent.
You know, it wouldn’t bother me so damned much if we had tried and failed. But we didn’t fail. We did it, we went to the moon, we could have gone to Mars and beyond.
And then we just quit.
We gave up.
Forty-three years ago, we turned our backs on Kennedy’s vision. We didn’t do the things that were hard. We did the easy part, and then we walked away. And I see that legacy all around me here in America today, the failure to face the challenges, to take the difficult roads, and do the things that are hard. We argue and squabble and hate each other, we spend our time trying to tear down what others have built and instead of driving forward into a future that we have forged, we cower in fear. Instead of following the men and women of vision and daring, we listen to the counsel of those small minded fearful men who admonish us not to dream.
My son, like most of his generation, has no interest in space. His school, though a fine place it may be, does not have the classrooms decorated with pictures of the men and the ships and the planets and the stars. There are no big dreams, no great national goals to galvanize his generation.
For these kids it’s not that the dreams have died, it’s that they never were.
"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just say what I believe history will record, that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
- Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander.
- The last man to walk on the moon, December 14, 1972.