Christopher Columbus, Charles Lindbergh, and Neil Armstrong.
From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.
Both of those quotes were delivered by the character of Jim Lovell in the film Apollo 13.
The second one is really a statement of the advancement of science. The literal millions of steps in theoretical and practical advancement that were needed over hundreds of years to culminate in sending a man to the moon. There was nothing supernatural about going there. It was the will collective will of people that got us there.
That first quote is there to remind us that no matter the advancement of technology, exploration is ultimately a human institution. Does anyone remember Luna 2, the first human created object to reach the moon? Even the fact that we have known at least for the better part of two centuries that Leif Ericson was the first European to reach North America, Christopher Columbus is more remembered because his story is a compelling one. Robots can only rouse a certain degree of enthusiasm. We know that Curiosity is getting ready to rove Mars today, but we’ve long forgotten about Viking, and Sojourner. When the day comes for a human to walk in the rusty dust, that is a name that will inspire and not be forgotten. Robots are financial risks. Human exploration carries with it not only financial risk, but the drama of personal risk, and the commitment of forging another link in a sometimes morally questionable, but nonetheless highly regarded chain of individuals who were willing to step forward for any number of reasons and risk their person in the name of taking us all the next step forward.
I’m not sure, in terms of “firsts”, that we have had any legitimate links forged onto that chain since Neil Armstrong took his historic walk with Buzz Aldrin back in 1969. His landing was a high water mark for science, engineering, and exploration, as well as the history of the United States and of the world. When the world or our country lacks Neil Armstrong-like people, I think we regress in some ways as a society. Call them heroes or role models … maybe something as simple as an “inspirer” is more sufficient, but people like Neil Armstrong … hardly perfect, and most definitely in many ways an ordinary person, fit that role to a T. I looked up a rare interview he gave back in 2000. This quote might just sum him up (at least as he saw himself):
I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.
Most explorers are held up as the most manly of men, the toughest of the rugged individualists. Here, possibly among the greatest of explorers, saw himself as a geeky number cruncher who happened to be able to fly with the best of them. Even the nerdiest can have the heart and courage of a warrior. Armstrong was my kind of guy: a teacher of science who was born and raised in the Midwest, who even was a member of the marching band (anyone who plays baritone in a marching band can hold their head high: the first man on the moon was one of you).
To this day “walking on the moon” is a metaphor for doing something before anyone else. But only one guy could actually make that claim in a literal and figurative sense all at the same time.
I’ve long given up hope that I will live to see the next great achievement in human exploration, which would be walking on Mars. I haven’t given up hope that this will one day happen, but what was at one time considered such a sure thing now seems so far off. I hope that maybe this is something that the generation of my goddaughter and nephew will get to witness in a distant future. That would be good enough.