Hollywood’s latest space film, “First Man,” stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in an intense battle between earthly priorities and the sublime possibilities of the Apollo mission, much like his nation. Naturally, its most glorious scene is the moon landing: the moment he takes that final, hesitant leap and we see his white boot press into the fine lunar soil before we gently pan over Earth, suspended in the vast blackness of space.
As majestic cinematography brings the feat back to life, frame by frame, a sense of nostalgia is almost unavoidable, even for viewers who weren’t on Earth when it happened. We tend to collectively look back at that moment, that era, as the height of success not only for NASA but for all of humanity. That was when we did great things. That was when we took risks. That is when America was at its boldest and best. But that’s not entirely true.
The romance associated with the Apollo program, and Apollo 11 in particular, is warranted. For one evening in July 1969 everyone paused and watched a human leave the confines of a ship and set foot on not a distant shore but an alien world. Line cooks flicked off their stoves and turned on the radio, families and friends gathered in front of TVs, and the faint sounds of Mr. Armstrong’s disembodied voice danced through the corridors of buildings around the world.
Going back to the moon or landing humans on Mars, some think, is the only way to surpass that pinnacle. However, there is so much more to the success of the space program than having boots on extraterrestrial ground.
Since the last astronaut left lunar soil in 1972, NASA has conducted 161 human space missions and launched 76 successful robotic missions all over the solar system, from Mars to Saturn’s watery moons.
Since their launch in 1977, the twin Voyager spacecraft have been on a historic reconnaissance mission, traveling to every planet in the outer solar system, conducting experiments, then sending back images and data crucial to harnessing our understanding of the very nature of the cosmos.
In 1979, Voyager 1 found evidence of an ocean beneath Jupiter’s moon Europa that scientists think could contain life. Even now, despite whizzing 13.4 billion miles away at 38,000 mph in interstellar space, the probe is still transferring data to Earth.
When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, we had never detected an exoplanet, black holes and aliens were an outlandish idea, oceans and volcanoes on other worlds were the stuff of science fiction, and we had never sent a spacecraft beyond Mars. Quiet progress can still be tremendous.
There are entire generations of active scientists, astronomers, physicists and engineers who trace their motivation for joining their field to either witnessing the Apollo moon landings or the Voyager flybys in the 1970s and ’80s. And most of our basic knowledge of how climate works, how planets form, how stars are born and how long they have to live (including our sun) are the result of examination by NASA programs.
Still, the benefits of NASA have never been strictly intergalactic. Both the camera in your cellphone and the memory foam in your bed are among hundreds of commercial goods that trace back to NASA technologies.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Deep Space Network — spread across California, Spain and Australia — not only serves as the ground station link for satellites in space but also tracks potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. All this while running on only one half of 1 percent of the entire federal budget.
The agency wasn’t always so underfunded and underappreciated.
The defining speech of the space race is widely understood to have been delivered in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in Houston, rallying support for NASA’s moonshot. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he thundered memorably from the lectern. Less remembered, however, is the second half of the sentence, in which he reminded Americans that beyond a power contest, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
In this era of exploration, that energy and those skills are best applied by looking far past the thin blue haze of our atmosphere, beyond the lure of the moon. It can be easy to forget that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters a second, that a light-year is 5.9 trillion miles and that the universe is so immense that most light from afar has yet to reach our sliver of the sky.
It took just over eight days for Apollo 11 to complete its mission. In space exploration, this is instant gratification. Learning to value this contemporary age of space journey will require more funding and building an appreciation for patient wonder.
Since 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope, the largest telescope ever launched, has orbited Earth. It is so powerful that two fireflies in Tokyo could be resolved if looking through the telescope from New York City. Hubble peers deep into space, patiently collecting the universe’s traveling light, then delivering it to us in never before seen images: galaxies, supernovas and nebulae. It is a time machine. And without it we wouldn’t know we are inside a galaxy that is just one of possibly trillions.
Astronauts at the International Space Station play a different role in our civic life than those of the Apollo crews. Neither they nor their robotic emissaries get parades or live TV broadcasts. No one stops making dinner when a space probe enters the orbit of a new world. But just because we’re not watching doesn’t mean it’s not happening. The secret to healing cancer or climate change could very well be hidden among the stars.
Those whose attention can last only long enough for the smash and grab of the moon landings will only ever be disappointed. It takes at least six months to get to Mars, and much longer than that to go anywhere else. Space, at large, operates in light-years, not news cycles. Embracing patient wonder will force us to delay our gratification as well as our dreams of living on the moon or Mars, and compel us to instead find connection and joy in what we discover “out there.”
After all, as space reveals itself to us, it provides answers to some of humanity’s central questions: How did we get here? Are we alone? And can we find meaning among the answers? That “giant leap for mankind” was, according to the first man himself, also “one small step.” The opening salvo to an Age of Discovery, not the climax of one.
Shannon Stirone is a science writer based in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic and other outlets.