About one month ago, Curiosity, a robotic rover designed and operated by NASA, landed on the surface of Mars, some 350 million miles from Earth. A live broadcast of the landing was displayed in Time’s Square, and NASA’s website was temporarily shut down due to high traffic. Around 45,000 people subscribed to the Twitter account of Curiosity‘s flight director Bobak Ferdowski, who became an internet celebrity overnight. The project to get the rover onto the surface has cost approximately $2.5 billion to date.
About two weeks before the landing, and barely commented upon in the press, overshadowed as it was by more pressing current events, was July 20: the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. The date goes essentially unnoticed each year: like most historical events, it is something the importance of which has been impressed onto us from a young age, and it is no longer interesting for most people to re-read the same trivia they learned in grade school. We all know at least part of the story, we all know the names (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin), we all know the famous line (“That’s one small step for man…”), and we’ve all seen the photographs (of the footprint in the cold lunar dust, of the ponderous space suits in front of the American flag, etc.).
There are only so many times you can relate to someone the basic facts of the matter and still expect them to pay attention. Especially, now, 43 years after that day, and 40 years after anyone else has walked on the moon (the last man on the moon was Eugene Cernan in 1972), and we have all seen pictures of Titan, the storms of Saturn, and other greater mysteries of the Universe that were unthinkable even then. It is difficult for this generation to conceptualize the momentousness of an occasion that had been trivialized by popular culture years before we were even born. The increasing marginalization of NASA and the dissolution of the socio-economic context of the late 1960s make those events seem increasingly distant and irrelevant. 43 years, to put it bluntly, is a very long time.
This past weekend, Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82. The national reaction has been a predictable mixture of disinterest and subdued respect. Armstrong, though a household name, never truly embraced the fame that came with his famous walk. Even without achieving the sort of popular adulation reserved for athletes, actors, and others that so fully immerse themselves in the limelight, we all still know who he was and what he did. However, in our popular imagination, what do we really think of him? Most people only know the name and the fact, and don’t particular care about knowing anything else about him or the moon. Others hold him as the model of a pseudo-mythical breed of astronaut: courageous space cowboys pushing our way into the wild frontier, not content to languish within the bounds of our planet (this archetype has been shown in dozens of movies).
Certainly, it is hard not to consider Armstrong, and other astronauts, brave. They spend merciless and endless hours training their bodies and minds to go to a place we physically were never meant to behold, and where the slightest problems or malfunctions can result in a terrible death. Armstrong in particular was famous even among his colleagues for being stoic and unflappable.
He, however, never thought of himself in that light. As he told an interviewer before the Apollo 11 mission,
For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger, especially if it’s useless; danger is the most irritating aspect of our job. How can a perfectly normal technological fact be turned into adventure? And why should steering a spacecraft be risking your life? It would be as illogical as risking your life when you use an electric mixer to make yourself a milkshake.
As he was once quoted as saying, he was a test pilot, not an adventurer. In a 2000 address to the National Press Club, he opined,
I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.
Armstrong was famously unprepared for the attention and adulation awaiting him when he returned from the moon. Unlike some of his more media savvy colleagues (John Glenn and Bill Nelson, for example, who would go on to become US Senators), Armstrong retired to teach engineering in Cincinnati. He was fond of pointing out that thousands of engineers, physicists, tacticians, and other scientists were equally responsible for the success of the mission (it is estimated that, at its height, the Apollo program involved 34,000 NASA employees and 375,000 contractors from industry and academia). He spent the past few years of his life he spent in rural Ohio flying gliders until he was no longer physically able.
I could go on to talk about the importance of the Apollo landings. It profoundly changed the world. From theoretical physics to Cold War politics, the ramifications of the moon landing are impossible to ignore or escape from. I could also talk about what a travesty it is that no mission to the moon has lifted off since 1972, and how Armstrong himself was disappointed by the pace of scientific research in the latter half of the 20th century. But this has been written about extensively, by people far more knowledgable on the topics than I. There is nothing new and profound I can add to this discussion.
What is really important that day is something more subtle. In fact, most people that hadn’t lived through the event would never think about it at all.
In this age of satellites, deep space telescopes, and near-instant communication anywhere on the globe, it isn’t easy to recognize the profundity of the above picture. Up until that point in history, nobody had ever seen the Earth from space. For millennia, humans have been looking up at the moon at night, attaching to it spiritual significance, an object of fantasy and mystery. But nobody had ever even imagined what it would feel like to see the Earth rising up through the darkness.
It fundamentally changed the way we view our planet, our universe, and ourselves. There was a time, in fact, that “the whole world” and “universe” were essentially interchangeable concepts. This planet was the entirety of our existence and our experience. All it took was one little step to change this permanently. Sure, the basis had existed since Copernicus and other early astronomers had theorized the Earth was not the center of the universe. But nobody had ever seen the Earth so small and so fragile, a tiny blue and white oasis in the middle of void unimaginably vast, just the real Earth, without the lines of race, history of politics to mar its surface.
And even if Armstrong himself and the details of his landing are forgotten, this perceptual shift will survive. If there is some distant science fiction future where humans have spread out by the billions into the stars, there will be no philosophical moment in human history more important than that time when we first were able to look back on our own planet across the emptiness and appreciate it for what it is. As Armstrong himself said of that moment:
It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.