Living in Space City USA, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing is a huge milestone; celebrations are breaking out everywhere. I have, of course, been wallowing in all the Apollo 11 media with not a little nostalgia. I remember the Apollo 11 Moon landing. I was just a kid, but I piled the dining room chairs in the living room in front of the small TV, carefully climbed into my "capsule", wrangling the last chair in position behind me, closing the "capsule" and sealing me in on my voyage to the Moon. Unlike the astronauts I didn't stay in my capsule; I came out for varying periods of time, but if the TV was showing the astronauts I was there, raptly watching. It was not just a life-changing event, but a world-changing event. Every human being (and quite a few dogs and cats as well) who were within range of a radio or television were watching and listening as a human being stepped onto another world for the first time. The sky was no longer the limit. We had gone beyond that.
I marvel now, now that I know a little something about technology, now that we have technology so much more advanced, that we did this thing with only the knowledge and equipment available in the 1960's. Granted, NASA was inventing as it went along, to meet such a staggering challenge, but still, I imagine that if you told engineers today that they had to send people to the moon and back safely using only the technology and tools of the 1960's, that they would all end up bald, having torn their hair out in frustration. It was a magnificent achievement; a huge leap forward for science, technology, and exploration. We've learned still more about the moon since then from the samples we brought back and the satellites we've sent out, knowledge gained from continually advancing technology.
But technology is all that's advanced. A half century. We can do things now that only science fiction writers of the 1960's could dream of, but the one thing we haven't done is follow through with the brilliant promise of that first moon landing. We went back to the moon after Apollo 11, but the later Apollo missions were cancelled, something that disappointed and frustrated the astronauts who were scheduled to be on them. Something that infuriates me. The Apollo program ended prematurely and NASA did not built on those missions, did not fulfill the promise of Apollo. We got the space shuttle, which was a brilliant concept, exactly what we needed to go forward: it looked and landed like a plane. Perfect for the next step of regular spaceflights. We got the International Space Station, which has been continuously inhabited for almost nineteen years, and which the shuttle regularly rendezvoused with before that program, too, was ended without taking another step forward from its promise. The ISS will soon be a victim of political forces, again, without that continuous forward movement.
Everyone wants to go to Mars. Which is great. But we've done as little to prepare for that next great leap as possible. From lunar landings we should've been working toward lunar habitation. No one in 1969 thought we wouldn't be living on the moon a half century later. It was a given. We needed a shuttle and we needed a space station---so that we could ferry people back and forth between the earth and the colony on the moon. People in the 21st century are talking about not just going to Mars, but establishing a colony there. Despite not having solved all the problems involved, and not having even colonized the closest and easiest world beyond ours to colonize. If we can't establish a lunar colony in a half century with all the current technology, then what hope do we have for Mars? We need to solve all the problems of establishing a colony on another world on the Moon, where the risk is lower (or it would be if we'd just stuck with developing shuttles and stations, instead of abandoning them). The Moon is an easy commute. A half century since we landed on the moon and no businessmen are routinely commuting between Earth and the Moon, or between a space station and the Moon. It's a disgrace.
It's easy to blame the politicians and to say now that commercial interests are involved in developing vehicles and technology we can get things done, but big business are johnny-come-latelys: where were the forward thinking wealthy business interests in the past fifty years? Go ahead and cheer private interest now---they've failed us for a half century. As for the politicians...NASA can only do what Congress authorizes and you'll not find a more short-sighted, unimaginative bunch of people anywhere. But the blame for a lack of a colony on the Moon cannot be laid entirely on unimaginative politicians; Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was not known to be a highly imaginative person thought we would be on Mars before the end of the 20th century!
No, we don't have a colony on the Moon, which would've made colonizing Mars so much easier, because the American people as a whole were short-sighted, lacking in drive and imagination. Politicians are, on a whole, selfish self-serving creatures: they will do absolutely anything to ensure they remain in office as long as possible. When the American people scream blue murder about something and tear a strip off their senators and representatives, and put the fear of losing the next election in them, then by golly, they will do something. But the American people had already lost interest in Apollo just two flights after the lunar landing. The television stations didn't cover Apollo 13 until it looked like people might die up there. Which is pretty nasty if you think about it. Awe inspiring isn't enough; imminent death is. The ratings were suffering. People weren't watching. And they weren't telling Congress that they wanted to live on the Moon, that they wanted their children to live on the Moon. Short attention span and apathy. That's why we don't have a colony on the Moon and why we're now flailing around with an assortment of media-hyped half-assed plans to colonize Mars. We are so unprepared for Mars---having spent a half century very deliberately doing everything we can to not prepare for any next logical and obvious steps---it's no wonder the media hypes the prospect: like Apollo 13, people could die. And the prospect of people dying in space or on another world is so much more interesting than the prospect of people living on another world.
Yes, I wallowed in all the Apollo 11 celebrations; it was a great exercise in painful nostalgia. A remembrance of an all-too-brief period of time when we did great imaginative things, and it was impossible with the 50, 50th, 50 years being hammered home not to think with righteous fury and anger of all we have neglected to do in the half century between then and now.
For more moon musings, see The Moon in my Living Room, written after the passing of Neil Armstrong.