Amid the bitter war, in the Age of Aquarius, with fire in the streets, astronauts flew to the moon and stepped onto the trackless dust of the Sea of Tranquility... What's amazing is that I (over)wrote this sentence 20 years ago to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. Nobody can outdo John Noble Wilford of the New York Times for his historic lede when the event happened: "Men have landed and walked on the moon." But my forgettable column from 1989 is a reminder of how fast time passes, for a man, for a nation.
You either got the space program or you didn't. I was a child of the Space Age, a rocket boy, minutely following every mission: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, as America raced the Soviets to the moon. I had NASA Facts films that the TV studio downtown had given me, sheaves of photos and publicity directly from the space agency, models of every rocket and spacecraft. I watched Neil Armstrong step out that July night in the company of my grandmother, a woman who had been born on the frontier, who had witnessed the invention of the automobile and the airplane -- and now she had lived to see this.
It remains one of the most moving moments of my life. I also choke up re-reading about the Apollo 8 mission, with the revolutionary photo Earthrise, when humans first saw their precious blue planet from afar, alone in the vast emptiness of cold space. When the astronauts read from Genesis on Christmas Eve and concluded with, "And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth."
You get it or you don't. But either way, at what a remarkable place we find ourselves 40 years -- 40 years! -- out.
We're stuck in low-earth orbit -- John Glenn/Project Mercury territory -- using space shuttles that will soon be retired with no immediate replacement. We built no moon base, made no leap to Mars. 2001 came and went with no odyssey. There have been impressive unmanned flights, to be sure. But to the surprise of most Americans living in 1969, Project Apollo was not the beginning, but the end, of America's inspiring, heroic space program. That this was allowed to happen is a staggering symbol of national failure.
A different country accomplished Apollo. A different country from where we now live.
The country that pulled off this achievement for the ages was deeply troubled by political assassinations, urban riots, a foolish, divisive and mortally wasteful war in Vietnam, upheaval on college campuses, authority and norms under siege like never before. We were in an apocalyptic face-down with a totalitarian empire. Our leaders were deeply flawed, even criminal: LBJ and Richard Nixon. And yet, we did this. We flew astronauts to the moon. We made the giant leap for mankind. We did this despite these convulsions. It made no business sense; there was no great economic gain awaiting us on the moon. It did not promise a 20-percent additional return on investment next quarter, tax free. We did this while also fighting poverty, putting in place major environmental protections, making historic progress on voting rights and inclusion that would lead to the election of the first African-American president, and -- in no small part thanks to the space program -- preparing the way for the computer and biosciences revolutions to come.
We did this. It seemed perfectly natural. Perfectly American.
We were the people who had liberated a continent, rebuilt our enemies as model democracies and friends and, at home, created the most prosperous and socially mobile society in the history of the world. Of course we could go to the moon, and farther.
Project Apollo will be remembered for many things beyond its singular place in history. It was sadly the end of the Age of Exploration. It was the end of the kind of national mobilization that began with World War II. It marked the zenith of American industrial and economic might -- we were still even a petro-state then, several years from national peak oil. It showed the strength of America that would inevitably triumph over communism, without the need for nuclear war, just as the wise men of the 1950s knew it would. If America continues on its trajectory of recent years, it will also be remembered as the end of national purpose, when triumphant liftoff and ascent were followed by drift and then a slow, selfish burning up on re-entry into the flames of history.
The years since Project Apollo was cut short have seen a parade of massive financial schemes and bubbles, ending in ever greater disaster until we now face not recession, but contraction. The Great Disruption. Everything must be measured against the great Free Market god, as interpreted by the business and economic elite that has given us these calamities and profited so mightily from them. Everything squeezed and crushed, the national wealth created by generations sold off, to increase profit margins of giant, transnational corporations and the power of the super-wealthy. Average Americans seemed to grow richer -- that was the new national purpose, such as it was. Yet sobering up, we find our nation considerably poorer and weaker than in 1969, and income inequality is at historic highs. We are the largest debtor in the world and our might in manufacturing has been replaced by manufacturing financial swindles. Our research and technology prowess hangs in the balance, and in any event, combined with our educational and trade-accord failures, does not create widespread economic prosperity.
The great civil rights movement that reached apogee in the 1960s gave us a much more inclusive society. Yet meritorcacy is pretty much dead in America -- you wouldn't have a farm boy from Ohio rising to walk on the moon today. Also dying are the good jobs, pensions and security that allowed for the 1960s economic upward mobility. And we must endure days of white Southern senators, Republicans now, sounding much like their racist Democratic progenitors, questioning the uppity Latina who might show empathy for average people instead for of the powerful and propertied.
We have turned inward to a few truly great accomplishments, especially the mapping of the human genome, and a multitude of small, wondrous, distracting amusements and conveniences. We have more information sources than ever, yet know less -- indeed, one major political party's star revels in ignorance. Our medical advances have been impressive -- if one can afford them. Ironically for the "space program was a waste of money" crowd, most of the groundwork for these contemporary achievements was laid by the science of the 1960s that was exemplified by Apollo.
We're not "wasting" money on space -- NASA's budget has been repeatedly slashed -- yet we have not ended misery in the world or expanded opportunity at home. We have 1969's road transportation system, crumbling now and overwhelmed with 100 million additional people -- but with fewer trains than 40 years ago. We lack the advances common in Europe, be it bullet trains or universal healthcare -- and don't get out enough to know it. Our state governments are falling apart. We are mired in something much worse than Vietnam -- and we weren't dependent on southeast Asia for the oil to continue our car-centric "lifestyle." To keep the bubbles going and get away from integration, we have desecrated the countryside with sprawl that is already decaying or turning to slums. Our government is owned by big business in a way that was unthinkable in 1969.
In 1969, most Americans could look at recent history and expect a better life ahead. Today, for the first time in history, perhaps a majority of Americans will not do as well as their parents or grandparents. Low-earth orbit, indeed.
These may be the small things by comparison. Climate change is happening much faster, and with more severe readings, than scientists expected. Inspired by American selfishness, the developing nations refuse, along with us, to take meaningful action to stop it (China recently passed us as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases). Peak oil is coming -- which is why China has designated renewable energy a strategic asset and is using protectionism to go for world dominance in it. America is doing nothing to prepare for this. Even if it were 20 years out -- the highly and questionable optimistic view -- we would need frantic effort now to begin the great transition. The crises over drinking water, fisheries and other environmental degradation of the good Earth are only beginning.
So here we are. Our fate is still what we make it. I do wonder if we still have the right stuff.
Read Tom Wolfe's magnificent meditation on Apollo here.