Jack Zaleski column: They walked on moon 34 years ago
Stanley Kubrick's astonishing film masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," premiered one year before the American astronauts of Apollo 11 walked on the moon. The science-based fiction of the movie suddenly did not seem far-fetched when Neil Armstro...
Stanley Kubrick's astonishing film masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," premiered one year before the American astronauts of Apollo 11 walked on the moon. The science-based fiction of the movie suddenly did not seem far-fetched when Neil Armstrong left footprints in the gray lunar dust 34 years ago today.
But the promise of the space program remains unfulfilled -- a footnote in federal policy, an afterthought in the American mind of 2003. Stop a dozen people on the street and ask them to identify the first men to walk on the moon (Buzz Aldrin was the second) and most won't know.
Why should they? The American space program is routine, dull and uninspiring. The star of the program, the space shuttle, is little more than a ground-to-orbit boxcar. It's old technology doing old things. And, as investigators into the recent Columbia disaster are reporting, the shuttle is an Edsel. The only time the nation pays attention to the shuttle is when it fails.
The expectation that the Apollo moon landings would lead to ambitious space exploration has long-since faded. The excitement that attended Apollo 11 and subsequent moon landings collapsed into ho-hum as the Richard Nixon administration shifted priorities from John Kennedy's vision to mundane pursuits.
Arguably, Kennedy's decision to go to the moon was tied to Cold War strategy. The Soviet Union had shaken the United States with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and subsequent successful manned orbital flights. The president was eager to demonstrate to the world U.S. superiority in space. Which we did in record time.
So when the spirit moved the nation, Americans did extraordinary scientific and technological things. But nothing as extraordinary as the Apollo program has been attempted for 30 years.
Of course, the nation has accomplished remarkable technological acheivements in space: the Hubble telescope, the unmanned probes to Mars and the outer planets, for example. They have told us more about the solar system than we've ever known. But the adventure of human exploration of space essentially ended when the Apollo 17 astronauts returned to Earth from the moon in 1972. Thirty-one years ago.
When Kubrick made 2001 (based on the 1954 story "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke) the potential for human space exploration seemed limitless. It was also the era of sci-fi authors Ray Bradbury ("The Martian Chronicles," 1950), Clifford D. Simak ("City," 1944) and Robert Heinlein ("Stranger in a Strange Land," 1961). They were the inheritors of the mantle of Jules Verne ("From the Earth to the Moon," 1865) and H.G. Wells ("War of the Worlds," 1898).
The 20th century authors were writing about possibilities, probabilities and human aspirations. Their works seemed to suggest that by now -- by the dawn of the 21st century -- humankind would have been knocking on the doors of the stars. The early chapters of Simak's "City," for example, are set in the late 20th century when Earth's population had all but left for the planets and stars. Clarke's "Sentinel" assumed that by 2001 travel to a space station and a moon base would be routine.
Didn't happen, not because it wasn't possible, but rather because the will to extend our reach to the planets faltered.
Thirty-four years ago today Americans got a glimpse of the beginning of what could have been. The fiction of the sci-fi writers was on the verge of becoming the real thing. We knew we could do it.
But the nation stalled, mired in the petty parochialism of short-term self-interest. Happy 34th anniversary, Apollo 11.
Zaleski can be reached at email@example.com or (701) 241-5521.