Thirty-five years ago, the first men from planet earth walked on the moon.
I was fourteen years old, watching it on a black and white television (though it would have made no difference if we’d had color–the images were black and white themselves). I saw Neil Armstrong step down from the ladder onto the surface, and heard him say “…one giant leap for mankind.”
I wasn’t thinking about the future as I watched, but as a naive teenager, I assumed that this was just the first of many such flights, that were the precursors for bases on the moon, and then flights to Mars and other places. I didn’t know that Lyndon Johnson had made the decision to end the Apollo program two years earlier.
I grew up with the space program–one of my earliest recollections was sitting in my pajamas in front of the teevee, watching John Glenn become the first American in orbit. I couldn’t imagine then that the last manned flight to the moon would occur in less than four years, and that it would be at least four decades, and probably more, after that before humans would return.
But later, as Apollo wound down, and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s proposals for continuing manned space exploration were ridiculed, it became clear that we weren’t going to see the future in space that I’d been promised by grade-school teachers and science fiction, and my interest waned through high school, to the point that I got perfunctory grades, and made no plans to attend college.
I didn’t know that in that same year that the first men trod the lunar regolith, a physics professor at Princeton was doing class projects to determine the feasibility of building huge colonies in space, and moving polluting industries off the planet. And later, thirty years ago this coming September, as I spent my first year after high school working as an auto mechanic, I didn’t read the issue of Physics Today in which his first seminal paper on this topic appeared.
But, laid off from the VW dealership in the wake of the 1974 recession, as Michigan unemployment hit levels not seen since the Depression, and disillusioned at the thought of spending the rest of my life unable to ever really get my fingernails clean, I decided to go to community college. I took math and science classes, and a couple years later transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There I met people who were aware of Professor O’Neill’s work, and introduced me to it. My interest in space was rekindled, and it led to the career that’s made me the wasted wreck of a man you see today.
Thirty-five years after Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, we have neither the NASA Mars base, or the huge spinning space colonies. But we’re finally seeing new progress on a front in between those two visions. Forty years after the end of the X-15 program, we’re recapitulating some of the early NASA program privately, and diversely, with the efforts of Burt Rutan and the other X-Prize contestants and suborbital ventures. They won’t be diverted down a costly dead-end path of giant throwaway rockets. Instead they’ll slowly and methodically evolve capabilities and markets, creating the infrastructure for low-cost access to space. Once we can afford to get, in Heinlein’s immortal words, “halfway to anywhere,” we’ll finally be able to return to the moon, to complete the job begun by those first voyagers, and this time we’ll be able to stay.