"Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."
— President John F. Kennedy
“The Eagle has landed.” With those words, Neil Armstrong told mission control and the world that the frontier of human exploration had expanded.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing; mission commander Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, while fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited in the command module Columbia. A few hours later, Armstrong then Aldrin stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon.
The moon landing was a big moment for the United States. Yet in addition to our flag, the astronauts left a plaque behind that said “For all mankind.” The world watched; the front page of The Joplin Globe proclaimed: “Half Billion Earth People View Astronauts.” It was the culmination of a race to space driven by the hot competition that burned inside our Cold War with the Soviet Union. But the race also was driven by Kennedy's vision of humanity crossing a new frontier.
There will be commemorations around the nation and the world today. The moment is rightly remembered as a triumph of hope and determination. But something went wrong in the wake of that success. We lost the vision.
NASA’s Apollo 11 web page says that in a post-flight news conference Armstrong called the mission "a beginning of a new age" and that Collins talked about future spaceflight to Mars. But that didn’t happen. Though 10 more men walked on the moon after them, the path forward dimmed. Through the 1980s and ’90s, NASA focused on collecting scientific information and developing the space shuttle, a vessel envisioned as a sort of space-going long haul truck to carry into orbit and return people and equipment. By 2011, the agency abandoned the program.
The space race cost a lot yet produced a huge return on our investment. The range of NASA spinoff technologies encompasses much we rely on today. The effort advanced public safety, science, medicine and health. A short list of spinoffs includes: the GPS system of navigation, the image sensors in our phones and cameras, solar power cells, infrared ear thermometers, LASIK surgery technology, highway safety grooving and so much more.
It is time to restore the vision. We must return to space to face the challenges of spanning the gulf between earth and the celestial bodies. Let’s pursue the mission to Mars, with the moon as a stepping stone. The president has said we will go. Congress must fund NASA's work, and we should support the peaceful exploration of space. We can count the cost, but in the long run, public funding for space flight and the related science, research and data collection is worth it.
And above all, we must reach beyond the earth to carry humankind out into our universe.