This Saturday is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, NASA’s first mission to land people on the moon.
Do you remember where you were July 20, 1969?
I don’t. I was born in 1972, the year Apollo 17 was making NASA’s final lunar landing. While NASA spent just over three years sending people to the moon, that series of missions did much to shape my professional life.
My father, an engineer, was captivated by spaceflight and the narrative of humans in space. Starting in 1969, he felt we stood on the threshold of a bold new endeavor: men walking on the moon; plans for a permanent space station with a follow-on moon base; sending humans to Mars; mining the asteroid belt; perhaps even, in the more-distant future, treks to the nearest stars.
“And you know what?” my dad would ask every time he told the story. “Your grandfather lived to see it. Who knows what will happen by time you’re his age?”
I am now about the same age as my grandfather when Neil Armstrong took his one small step, and I have lived to see some amazing things. I’ve watched NASA fulfill its promise to visit every planet in the solar system. I’ve seen robotic missions to Mars become nearly routine. I can look up at the orbiting International Space Station and know that astronauts have looked down on Earth since Nov. 2, 2000, an uninterrupted stretch of nearly 19 years.
What I have not seen is a return of humans to the Moon or to a more distant planet, such as Mars.
I could view this as an enormous disappointment. When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut, to travel to Mars and see those red-rock vistas firsthand. Later, at age 20, I spent more than a year in Antarctica, as a dishwasher, to support the scientists and artists-in-residence there, figuring that was the closest I could come, at the time, to traveling to another planet.
And then, for good measure, I became an astrophysicist.
Yet, here I am, still Earth-bound although I cannot be too disappointed. Nobody else has beat me to it. In the meantime, I can do the next best thing: study the images from the Mars rovers and hunt for life elsewhere in the galaxy.
However, there is still a part of me, the impatient part of me, who wonders when will we go back?
Planetary scientists have an active debate about the value of putting humans in space. Many would prefer to rely on robotic instruments since they eat less, usually weigh less and are much more replaceable than any precious living astronaut. And, frankly, from a scientific perspective, I’d have to agree. If all you care about is safe, incremental scientific exploration, robots are where it’s at. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to die collecting my scientific data.
But science isn’t all I care about. While I was in Antarctica, I spent most of my time washing dishes and a much smaller amount of time doing scientific research in the NASA-funded greenhouse. I spent a larger fraction of my time just being on the continent, experiencing what it was like to live at the bottom of the world. That experience ultimately propelled me into my scientific career as a researcher and teacher of planetary science. It also deeply shaped my appreciation of our fragile planet and humanity’s impact on it.
I am watching with renewed interest as I see human space flight beginning to blossom again. A handful of companies are vying to send humans to space for a whole host of non-scientific reasons. When more humans see our pale blue dot from a distance and internalize the fragility and uniqueness of Earth, what will that do to our perspective of the planet? When not only scientists and engineers live on the lunar surface but also young dishwashers and other support staff, who knows how it might influence their lives?
What happens when we start sending poets, writers and photographers? What will they create to inspire us?
No matter how old you were on July 20, 1969, this July 20, you can celebrate that magnificent achievement. Join Weber State University’s Ott Planetarium in the Tracy Hall Science Center from noon-5 p.m. for Science Saturday. We will have big rockets and fun activities in honor of humanity’s first in-person trip to another world.