Forty Years Later, Rekindling The Character Of A Generation

By SpaceRef Editor
July 31, 2009
Filed under
Forty Years Later, Rekindling The Character Of A Generation

July 20, 2009

Everyone who works for the United States Space Program always feels a certain sense of pride about what we do. We definitely don’t do what we do for the money, we are probably some of the lowest paid scientific professionals in the country. We don’t do what we do for job security, congress cuts our budgets and we have to lay off hard working people every year. We don’t do what we do for the cushy hours, we often work extreme overtime and late nights to make sure the job gets done. We don’t do what we do because of the fame and notoriety, no one knows who we are with the exception of the astronauts, and even then I doubt anyone in the general public could name a recent one.

We do what we do because we believe in what we do, we dream of a bright future, and we live for exploring the unknown.

It was 40 years ago today, July 20th, that man first set foot on our moon. A team of the best and brightest from around the country came together in one unifying effort to push the boundaries of the imagination, and truly make the impossible, possible. This group of elite individuals, ranging from engineers to janitors, all contributed in some small way to the loftiest goal ever given to any nation in world history. In was in that one moment, that one unifying moment, that the hard word of all these individuals came together as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the dusty lunar surface.

At no other point in history has the entire planet watched in awe at the great accomplishment that we as a species had accomplished. It may have been a race between the US and Russians at the pinnacle of the cold war, but at that moment there were no lines, no divisions. We were not Americans, Russians, Europeans, Asian, or any other slight genetic variance. We were human beings.

As Carl Sagan so famously said as he looked at a photo of our planet from Voyager 1, “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

As you look at the image from Voyager 1, in that single blue pixel, remember that is our home. That is the home of humanity. The more you look at it, the more you realize how truly insignificant we are in the grand scheme of the universe, and how the petty arguments and biases of our daily lives really are. We are but a grain of sand on a vast beach with the waves of the intergalactic ocean lapping at our shores. It is in that realization at how small we are that we were emboldened to explore it. Apollo 11 was our first step in leaving that blue pixel, in exploring the grand painting of the universe.

There are those detractors that will scream from the highest mountaintops that we must focus on the problems on earth before we can explore the universe. I say to them that we cannot begin to solve the problems on earth before we take a step away, and see ourselves in the grander scheme of the cosmos. While standing on Earth we can only see borders and politics, black and white, gay and straight, war and famine but perched among the stars we only see the deep majesty of our oceans, the flowing green fields of our continents, and the thin blue line of our fragile atmosphere. We must take these steps away from our home in order to look back on it and reflect on those things that are truly most important. We had one of these profound moments on this day 40 years ago, when we realized what we as a species were capable of, and that nothing was impossible.

We enjoyed a decade long period of scientific advancement and societal growth following the moon landing. This enhanced vision of ourselves as a planet, as humanity, lead to advances in tolerance and the reduction of injustice based on petty bias. This self confidence as a people gave strength to those who toiled through the long nights in search of the next great achievement, and we have benefited from it to this very day. We have technologies that no one at the time of Apollo 11 could have ever dreamed of. We have the internet which allows us unlimited access to the collective knowledge of anyone who has ever lived. We have communications technologies that let us speak to anyone on the planet instantaneously, which has opened a whole new world of coexistence. We have medical advances that save millions of lives every year that would have otherwise perished.

In the generations that have passed since we last walked on the moon during Apollo 17 in December of 1972, the ideology of an age has slowly faded. While we still make advances in all areas of technology and society, there haven’t been any leaps and bounds. Some may argue that we are just waiting for the “next big thing”, but I say we lack the vision to see it. When President Kennedy gave us the goal to land on the moon by the end of the decade, he gave not only NASA a vision, he gave it to the rest of the world as well. It was that vision that acted as a springboard forward, propelling every nation on the planet to strive to a single goal. In the pursuance of any goal you must meet certain objectives and criteria, and when dealing with such a far reached goal, you must think outside the box and invent a new and unique path forward.

In the spring of 1981 the Space Shuttle program sent the orbiter Columbia on her maiden flight and once again pushed limits of what mankind thought was possible. This new generation of people took the ideas of science fiction that were created following the Apollo era and brought them alive with the first reusable space plane. Access to the space surrounding our planet had been made easier, and an age of space based technologies has flourished since. However, as the years have passed, our closest neighbor has drifted farther away from our technological grasp.

The Space Shuttle program has valiantly brought us 28 years of not only scientific advancement, but also inspiration for the generations to follow. However, it is now my generation that is beginning to step up to the plate and begin this journey of exploration a new. None of us were even a twinkle in our parents eye during the Apollo era, and most weren’t even born before the first Space Shuttle mission, but the images of those accomplishments still inspire us today.

In my relatively short career thus far at the Kennedy Space Center, I have lived out my childhood fantasies of one day working for such an illustrious program. I have crawled into every nook and cranny inside the orbiters. I have stood in the halls once traveled by those men who sent us to the moon. I have even held a leading role on an orbiter who first flew in space when I was just knee high. Even with these accomplishments, I have only just “worked” for the space program, but now it is time for my generation lead it.

With the Space Shuttle retirement just over a year away, now is the time to dream big, take chances, and really let our imaginations guide us. Now is the time that we as a generation need a vision. We need a vision like that of generations past, to once again return to the moon. However, we cannot stop there. We must continuing pushing that frontier, pushing forward, onward to new worlds. We must explore and learn, create and innovate, conquer tough challenges, and once again see our world as one whole instead of many pieces.

As I stood before the nearly complete components of our new test moon rocket tonight, the Ares 1-X, I reflected upon those moments past when engineers my age 40 years ago looked up at the first pieces of the Saturn V and marveled at its magnificent potential. There are times I often wonder if they felt, as I do now, if they were at the beginning of something new and grande. To be on the ground floor of a new venture in human history, expanding our imaginations to include these new possibilities, and dream of even bigger moments to come.

It is that vision, that feeling of limitless possibility, that our world must once again grasp on to to save us from the precipice of our own self importance. We have focused so much on our divisions that we have lost sight of the big picture, and we must once again travel amongst the stars in order to gain that perspective back. We must once again push ourselves beyond what is comfortable and safe, to take risks and create seemingly insurmountable challenges to once again unite us together as a common whole.

It is my generation that must lead this charge. We must look beyond our lives of instant gratification and entitlement and once again roll up our sleeves like generations past and get down to the hard work at hand. We cannot sit idly by and hope that someone else will do it, we must make it happen! If we don’t, then we are only hurting ourselves and all subsequent future generations. Now is the time, and now is when we must do it!

To paraphrase President Kennedy, we must choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

It was 40 years ago today that humans walked on a celestial body that was not their own. Lets not let it be another 40 years before we once again sail amongst the sea stars and pioneer our own path to the future.

Per aspera ad astra.

SpaceRef staff editor.