What is this latest fuss about a landing on the moon? Don’t get excited, nobody has walked on it again. For all the fun those astronauts had bouncing about up there in their moon-suits years ago, there has been nothing sufficiently interesting to lure human beings back since 1972. Remember the scene in the movie “Apollo 13” where Mr. Tom Hanks, playing Mission Commander Jim Lovell, squints at the moon from Earth and realizes that he can make it appear or disappear by simply covering it with his thumb? Following the departure of Apollo 17 nearly 27 years ago, the moon shrank to just such a tiny, remote orb in the public mind — and in the international space community’s priorities as well. Which makes the excitement that resurfaces with every big anniversary of the first moon landing — 30 years ago today — all the more incongruous.
Every five years, the familiar rituals of remembrance are repeated. Old tapes of the Apollo 11 mission are replayed, from launch to landing. Graying news anchors recall the thrill of covering it. Science writers remind us of its technical significance. First-men-on-the-moon Mr. Neil Armstrong and Mr. Buzz Aldrin and their copilot Mr. Michael Collins are profiled and dissected all over again and turn up with the predictable graciousness of royalty at NASA’s commemorative events. For the umpteenth time, the media walk us solemnly through the history of the U.S. moon shot: the shock of Sputnik; President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call to put a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s; the tragedies; the ultimate triumph; the tragico-triumphant coda of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. We have heard the famous lines so many times — “The Eagle has landed . . .”; “That’s one small step for man . . .”; “Magnificent desolation” — we could script the movie ourselves by now.
It is true that the plaque left on the moon by Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin reads “. . . We came in peace for all mankind,” and that the United States has always been careful to couch the official rhetoric of celebration in universal rather than nationalist terms. Nevertheless, it is impossible for observers in other countries — even those who recall the suspense and awe of July 20, 1969 as vividly as any American — not to detect a double note of self-congratulation and self-reassurance in the U.S.’ interminable revisiting of this historic event. The suspicion creeps in that it is protesting too much: Would the anniversary cause such a stir if anything as noteworthy had been achieved since?
Perhaps it would be appropriate to take this week’s hoopla-ridden occasion as a turning point, a chance for image-mongers and policymakers alike to refocus on the future. Sacrilegious as it sounds, people do not care about Apollo any more. As each anniversary rolls by, they would rather know where “mankind” is going next, and when. Wasn’t the moon supposed to be a way station to the galaxy, a threshold to the stars? After 30 years, it is still a final destination, and a forlorn, abandoned one to boot.
In fact, there has been a great deal of progress in space exploration since 1972, when the Apollo program was mothballed. It is just that none of it has the glamour of human footprints in the alien dust. But those will come. Since Apollo, there have been numerous unmanned missions far beyond the moon. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977, are alive and well at the outer edges of the solar system. Galileo reached Jupiter in 1989, is now on a mission to the Jovian moon Europa and is destined for Io. The Cassini spacecraft’s seven-year journey to Saturn, begun in 1997, is on track. The Mars Polar Lander is expected to reach the red planet in December. These are all U.S. initiatives, but global efforts have been proceeding as well. Russia’s space station Mir has become a synonym for space-based mishap, but the International Space Station, in which Japan is a partner, was quietly, efficiently launched last year. All indications now are that future space initiatives are likely to be the result of international cooperation rather than nationalistic competition — and they are all about putting people, not just machines, into space.
As for the moon, there is a chance the cobwebs may yet be dusted off its old image as a colonizable steppingstone between Earth and space. In 1994, a tiny U.S. Defense Department spacecraft detected indirect evidence of water ice on the moon. In January 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector also found signs of ice at both lunar poles. Next week, 30 years to the month after Apollo 11, the Prospector is scheduled to crash-land on a promising site, in hopes that it will send up a cloud of detectable water vapor.
If it does, the sequel to Apollo may have finally begun.
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