The 40th anniversary of the first sentient being to walk on the moon is behind us. Now we are likely send the space program back to the edge of our consciousness again. Too many immediate, earth-bound challenges face us.
Philosophy loses vigor when the lions charge; aspirations wither without calories.
Recalling a speech he once heard Werner von Braun — the father of the one billion horsepower Saturn V that launched us out of earth orbit, bound for the moon — last week Tom Wolfe lamented that NASA never hired any philosophers. Even many of the hard-boiled test pilots who were the first astronauts came to realize that all their personal skill and courage, all the technical and engineering skill, and all the scientific knowledge that went into the Apollo program failed to lift our vision. Frank Borman, the pilot/commander of Apollo 8 is an example. He wrote, “We took the human intellect and the human vision, the human mind, 240,000 miles away from its home base. . . . Whether we found a rock there or not was of no importance.”
According to Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, von Braun was NASA’s only philosopher. Aware that he was dying of cancer, von Braun made a speech in which he said,
Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
We humans often assume that current conditions are the norm; that they were ever thus, and will always be, ever thus. That common fallacy deadens imagination and, eventually, could kill us. Just because we now have the financial, technical, and scientific ability to maintain a space program is no guarantee that we will have it tomorrow.
And one day, we will either leave the planet or die. Wolfe thinks we’ve wasted the last 40 years. Without doubt, we are squandering a heaven-sent opportunity. It is time for people to go to Mars.
Some treasures surfaced during the week long celebration of Apollo XI. For instance, here are the written transcripts of the entire flight.
Here is the digitally restored television image of our first step on an alien surface.
And here are two perceptive pieces published last week that are worth the read, the first by the former head of the European Space Agency, the second a book review of a new book about the space program.
Finally, here is Tom Wolfe’s entertaining and wise op-ed.