Fifty years ago today man landed on the moon, in the persons of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and courtesy of a lunar module from Apollo 11. The most I've ever written about the "space race" was in my book After America, and the passage attracts criticism both from the Nasa types and those who think the whole man-on-the-moon thing was a crashing bore. Nevertheless, the modern world was built by the men who ventured beyond the edge of the map, and in that sense the stasis of the last half-century is both unusual and a little disturbing. To mark the anniversary, The New York Times wondered when a woman might reach the moon - which sounds a humorless rewrite of the old feminist gag that "if they can put a man on the moon, why can't they put them all there?" So here's a few of my thoughts on the subject over the years:
The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903. Fifty-nine years later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and seven years after that Buzz Aldrin became the first man to fly to the moon and play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the moon - thanks to the portable cassette recorder he took with him. In a certain sense, the moon landing was the culmination of the tremendous inventive energy of the nineteenth century (if I had to pick a so-called "greatest generation" it would be somewhere in the latter half thereof). Half a century from the Wright Brothers to The Right Stuff - from nosediving into the neighbor's cornfield to walking the surface of the moon - followed by half a century devoid of giant leaps and even small steps.
When After America came out, I was booked on "Fox & Friends" to talk it over with Brian Kilmeade. Sitting next to Brian on the couch waiting to get going, I watched Steve Doocy across the studio link to an item on the space shuttle Enterprise beginning its journey to whichever museum it's wound up at. Steve called it "historic", and, as I remarked to Brian, pity the nation whose greatness becomes "historic" - whose spacecraft exist only in museums. There's a passage in After America on just that theme:
In 1961, before the eyes of the world, President Kennedy had set American ingenuity a very specific challenge—and put a clock on it:
'This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.'
That's it. No wiggle room. A monkey on the moon wouldn't count, nor an unmanned drone, nor a dune buggy that can't take off again but transmits grainy footage back to Houston as it rusts up in the crater it came to rest in. The only way to win the bet is with a real-live actual American standing on the surface of the moon planting the Stars and Stripes. Even as it happened, the White House was so cautious that William Safire wrote President Nixon a speech to be delivered in the event of disaster:
'Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace...'
Yet America did it.
It was not a sure thing. In 1961 the Soviets had it all over the Americans in the space race: They had already reached the moon, with the unmanned flight Luna 2, and they had put a man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin and the cosmonauts were inspirational figures well beyond the Warsaw Pact. By contrast, all the US unmanned missions had been failures, and their astronauts were earthbound - or sub-orbital at best. Kennedy was cautioned against his moon speech on the grounds that he was setting America up for very public humiliation.
But he chose to go ahead.
And now? From After America:
Four decades later, Bruce Charlton, professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, wrote that "that landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achieve- ment of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans." That's a good way to look at it: the political class presented the boffins with a highly difficult and specific problem, and they solved it—in eight years. Charlton continued:
'Forty years ago, we could do it—repeatedly—but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
'Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something.... But I am suggesting that all this is BS. . . . I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75—at the time of the Apollo moon landings—and has been declining ever since.'
Can that be true? Charlton is a controversialist gadfly in British academe, but, comparing 1950 to the early twenty-first century, our time traveler from 1890 might well agree with him. And, if you think about it, isn't it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet blasting out from his iPod Lady Gaga and the Black-Eyed Peas or whatever the twenty- first-century version of Sinatra and the Basie band is. ... It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a nineteenth-century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
How long will it even half-linger? Great civilizations can survive a lot of things, but not impoverishment of spirit. That's one reason I didn't join in the media sniggers at Donald Trump's new Space Force - because I'd like it to be true. Here's me and Michio Kaku taking it seriously:
As I commented a year or so back:
Those "Space Age" astronauts were men of boundless courage and determination: they strapped themselves in and stared not just death in the face but death in hideous and unknown ways. Yet they were also ordinary men, who were called upon to do extraordinary things and rose to the challenge. These days we are unmanned in more than merely the sense of that Luna 2 expedition. Glenn and Armstrong are gone, and their surviving comrades are old and stooped and wizened, and yet the only giants we have. Space may still be the final frontier, but today, when we talk about boldly going where no man has gone before, we mean the ladies' bathroom. Progress.
As the third year of The Mark Steyn Club cranks into top gear, we're very appreciative of all those who signed up in our first flush and have been so eager to re-re-subscribe for another twelve months. We thank you all, and hope to see at least a few of you to thank you personally on our Second or Third Steyn Cruise. For more information on the Club, see here.