(Picture courtesy of d r i f t g l a s s.)
Forty years ago today when I was growing up in Tampa, Florida, my mother crouched in front of our entertainment center and thought it would be a good idea to record man's first landing on the moon with our Polaroid. Being no photographer, she had no way of knowing that when the pictures developed minutes later they would show only a dark gray screen with a white blob in the middle. Yet at least her enthusiasm for this moment was indicative of a keen appreciation of the sheer historical impact of Apollo 11. Even at 10, I was very well aware of it. We as a nation were such lunatics that our family even got a write-up in the local paper because my father was stationed in Turkey for a year doing his small part to track two or three of the Apollo missions including 11.
Those too young to remember the Apollo 11 mission firsthand may perhaps be forgiven a lack of appreciation of the staggering amount of technology and training that was required to hurtle three men a quarter of a million miles into outer space, land two them on an alien world while the third circled overhead and then to get these men back safely and to accomplish this mission in just over a week.
Even to those of us alive at the time, despite the incessant coverage by Walter Cronkite and others, we still couldn't appreciate the backbreaking work that was necessary to its happy conclusion. All we knew how to do was to savor the achievement, that we beat the Russians there and that such technology and pioneering spirit was made even more miraculous considering our relative ignorance of the moon. One person even said on national TV that we didn't know what would happen when the lunar landing module touched down or even if the moon's surface was so soft that it would sink in. It was noble recklessness tempered with historical import.
Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, had gotten the historical and carefully-chosen first words out of the way and Buzz Aldrin was free to give off-the-cuff impressions. And one of Aldrin's first words on setting foot on the moon was "Magnificent desolation."
Indeed it was. The lifeless surface of the moon was a dull gray, the video images grainy and the camera lens didn't even offer a very panoramic view of our satellite. The moon's smaller surface made for a very short horizon and we couldn't even see much that lay beyond the base in the Sea of Tranquility. In a way, it was an anticlimax and even the magnificent color photos published later in the year by Life magazine did little to alleviate the moon's blandness.
But "magnificent desolation" it was and even then there were those who were asking why we were spending billions to send three guys to the moon over and over again while we were embroiled in a war in southeast Asia and millions were starving in Biafra and other Third World countries.
40 years later, we've still come no closer to satisfactorily answering that question as NASA is already making plans to send a manned mission to Mars, another magnificently desolate world equally devoid of life only much farther away than our moon, making the mission much more dangerous. In a way, it's like starting over again. Now, as usual, we're engaged in not one major military campaign but two, this time costing us trillions in the long run. Starvation is still a problem and we still haven't even cleaned up New Orleans nearly four years after Katrina.
All throughout its history, Mankind has demonstrated an inexplicable need to explore and colonize without first taking care of its worst problems on the home front. On a massive scale, colonizing a new continent or planet while leaving behind pressing responsibilities is a lot like leaving your house a mess with the basement flooded and bills going unpaid so you can go househunting and export your problems and shortcomings to a new venue.
To me, it's obvious that Congress had no right allocating billions to NASA for a manned mission to Mars while we already have desolation in this country, on this planet, a desolation that is rarely if ever "magnificent."