First published on July 20, 2009, the anniversary of the first moon landing. 5 years since I wrote, 45 years now since the event, the lessons are still relevant, I think:
Today marks 40 years since Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin stepped out of the Eagle Lunar Lander and walked on the moon. It was a day of history – many of those my age remember it well. The event culminated a decade of technical effort and nationalistic fervor – the ‘space race’ was one important aspect of politics in the 1960’s, a period of time remembered more for other events (wars and assassinations come to mind).
Politics and possibly misguided nationalism aside, there is no question that the achievement was real and historically significant. ‘Unprecedented’ hardly covers it. For the first time a human being had escaped the gravity and atmosphere of our home planet and set foot on solid ground ‘in space’.
What we did is clear enough. But what did it mean? What does it mean today?
I’ve been pondering this question for about six months, since I realized this anniversary was coming up, and an old poem keeps intruding into my thoughts – “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, written in 1915:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We have all had choices to make in our lives. And like Robert Frost, we have looked back and wondered, ‘What if I had gone that way instead of this?’
The Apollo 11 mission represented such a fork in the road for humanity, but one that was, perhaps, not obvious at the time. We had a choice – we made a choice – and ‘that has made all the difference’.
Consider the television news conference (another triumph of technology!) that occured on July 23, 1969, as Apollo 11 headed back to earth:
Mission pilot Michael Collins spoke first, praising the machine and the technology that had made the mission possible:
“The Saturn V rocket which put us in orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, every piece of which worked flawlessly …”
Commander Neil Armstrong of “One small step…” fame, spoke last, giving credit to the government and the companies involved in the mission:
“The responsibility for this flight lies first with history and with the giants of science who have preceded this effort; next with the American people, who have, through their will, indicated their desire; next with four administrations and their Congresses, for implementing that will; and then, with the agency and industry teams that built our spacecraft, the Saturn, the Columbia, the Eagle, and the little EMU, the spacesuit and backpack that was our small spacecraft out on the lunar surface.
But in between these two, Edward ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, the other ‘moon walker’, provided a very different perspective:
“This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown … Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?'”
Three men, and three perspectives on the event they had all participated in: Technology, government, God.
On one level, each of the astronauts was simply giving credit where credit is due. And don’t misunderstand me – there was plenty of credit to be given. The spacecraft was indeed a marvelous machine and the mission would not have happened without it. The unusual – we might even say unheard of – government commitment that spanned a decade and three different presidential administrations was a necessary foundation for success. And the corporations who actually did much of the work also deserve credit. Their thousands of engineers, computer programmers and technicians were the human backbone that made the project possible.
But Aldrin’s comment is altogether different. Where the others looked at what had been accomplished, directing attention to ourselves, he seemed to be trying to point us outward, toward the new vistas unfolding before our eyes.
This was the fork in the road’ choice we had: Would we choose to turn our attention toward ourselves, focusing on what we (the crew, NASA, the USA, the human race) had accomplished? Or would we choose to look outward, to be humbled by the vastness of the universe and our own small place in it. Would we move into the strange new world of technological prowess with wonder, humility and even fear? Or with arrogance – ‘if we can go to the moon we can do anything?’
Today’s environmental crisis – showcasing our inability to understand, let alone to control the effects of our technological power – would suggest that we did not ‘take the road less traveled by’ – but that it has, in fact, ‘made all the difference’.
And we didn’t even realize there was a choice to be made.