“a magnificent desolation”

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke these words in a speech at Rice University:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

36 years ago today, Kennedy’s vision became a reality when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. That event remains arguably the greatest technological achievement in history, and represents the high-water mark for the American space program.

At the time it was believed by many that that Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” would represent the first step into a much broader realm of space exploration. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rand Simberg notes:

The goal had never really been to open up space, so much as to win a race against the Soviets, to demonstrate our technological superiority, as a proxy battle in the Cold War between democracy and totalitarianism (sadly, it wasn’t viewed as a war between capitalism and socialism, else we might have taken a more promising approach). But with the knowledge that we were winning that race, and the budget pressures of Johnson’s Great Society and the Vietnam war, the decision had been made years before to end procurement of long lead items necessary to advance much beyond a few trips to the lunar surface.

The excitement and momentum that once surrounded manned spaceflight programs has now subsided into the stagnant Space Shuttle program, which literally can’t get off the launch pad.

But there is hope. Private companies run by people who envision market-oriented approaches to space exploration are beginning to take up the slack where governments are leaving off. Simberg notes:

Fortunately, though, unlike the 1960s, we can now see a means by which we can do so without having to hope for bureaucrats to make the right decisions as to how to spend taxpayer money. Before too many more Apollo XI anniversaries roll by, I suspect that there will be many non-NASA personnel on the moon, visiting it with their own money, for their own purposes.

I have always found NASA’s photographic archives of the Apollo program to be fascinating and inspiring (Be sure to take a look for yourself if you haven’t done so before.) And I look forward to the day when I will no longer have to wonder what it was like bear witness to a human being setting foot on some other celestial body.

For now, this will have to suffice.

Update: A personal remembrance from Scott Warmka:

Dad was carrying my brother and told me to follow him outside. The night was warm. Above shined clear the moon. Men were there, but we couldn’t see them. We waved anyway. (I think we did that for my brother’s sake.) Barely I caught the look in Dad’s eyes. Not a question, more a simple command, “See what we can do.”

  • http://blog.acton.org Jordan

    It was only seven years later on that date that US Viking 1 lands on Mars at Chryse Planitia, 1st Martian landing.

  • http://thetrog.blogspot.com/2005/07/my-earliest-memory.html The Troglodyte

    Thirty-six years ago.

    A long day of mild amusement for a two-year old, filled by waiting for anyone I know, holding vigil on the back steps of the farm house, toy tractors in hand.