On July 20th, 1969, the first humans set foot on the moon.
Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin radioed back to the earth, ‘the Eagle has landed’. A few hours later, Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander, descended a ladder to the surface of the moon where no human being had ever set foot and said “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’
What he was supposed to say was, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ One can only assume that the PR people at NASA had agonized for months over what the first man (it was always going to be a man) was going to say when he first set foot on the moon. Considering the magnitude of the achievement, we can perhaps forgive Armstrong his faux pas.
In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh successfully became the first man to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris, his first words were ‘well, I made it’. But then, there were no TV cameras broadcasting his landing to the world. The media circus for him would come later.
For Armstrong, it was different. An estimated 600 million people watched the lunar landing, at that time, the largest live television event in history.
And no wonder. The lunar landing represented the culmination of a desire that had captured humanity since the first proto- humans stood erect for the first time in the savannahs of Africa and stared upward at the heavens instead of down at the ground.
Extolled in our traditions, mythology, religions, ancient writings, folklore and even in language. That great massive shining disc in the sky had captured our imaginations since time immemorial. And then, finally, on that fateful day in July, ten thousand years… no, perhaps a million years of human yearning and imagination came to a climax as the Eagle landed and Armstrong took the first bold steps on the surface of the moon.
The event was so momentous, so awe inspiring that 10,000 years from now, people will still regard it as a fundamental milestone in human achievement.
The Wright Brothers had made the first powered flight in 1903; Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969. It only took 66 years, slightly less than the span of a single lifetime to go from flying 825 feet in a flimsy craft made of wood and linen to flying 238,855 miles (or 1.26 billion feet) from the Earth to the Moon in a craft a bit more complex than the Wright Flyer.
Now THAT is an astonishing achievement.
Or maybe not…
The first humans landed on the moon in 1969. The last ones left there in 1972.
No one has been back since.
Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? I mean, the fact that on one has bothered to go back to the moon in nearly fifty years after about a million years of yearning to get there? That is almost the same amount of time between Kitty Hawk and The Sea of Tranquility. Had we continued along the same exponential arc of advancement, there would no doubt be regular colonies on Mars now and explorations to Jupiter. But there aren’t .
There aren’t because for some strange reason, we all collectively elected not to go back to the Moon, or anywhere else for that matter.
And it’s not like it’s all that hard to do; at least going to the Moon.
At least, not now. It certainly was in 1969, but that was a long time ago, nearly a lifetime ago. The technology to go to the moon was, well, 1960s tech.
To get to the moon and back, NASA used a state- of-the-art IBM 360 Model 75S mainframe computer. The machine cost $3.5 million (1969 dollars), was the size of a car and could perform several hundred-thousand addition operations per second, and had a memory of 1 megabit.
By way of comparison, your iPhone can run 3.36 billion transactions per second, making it 32,600 times faster than the Apollo computers and can perform instructions 120,000,000 faster than the IBM. All of this for a few hundred dollars.
There is, in short, no technical reason why people stopped going to the moon. Today, it would be vastly simpler — could be vastly simpler — if people still wanted to go. But the problem is, they don’t. They don’t want to go back. There is, rather, a lack of interest.
In light of our human history, this may be hard to explain.
Or maybe not.
The Apollo landing on the moon cost $20 billion in 1969. A lot, but not extraordinary. That would be $109 billion in 2016 dollars. By way of comparison, again, the War in Iraq has cost the US $1.7 trillion. (And humanity did not dream of invading Iraq for ten thousand years).
So it was not the cost either.
It wasn’t the money.
It was something else.
On March 16, 1966, astronauts Neil Armstrong (who would later be the first man to walk on the moon), and David Scott performed the first successful docking with the Agena target vehicle. This would prove essential three years later for the first trip to the moon.
That very same year, another space ship was launched. It was the Starship Enterprise. Instead of two (and later three) men squeezed into a tin can, it carried a crew of 1,012. And, instead of going to the grey and boring moon (which took days), the Enterprise was able to warp into hyperspace and seek out new worlds and go where no man had ever gone before.
The Gemini and Apollo shows were broadcast in black and white. Grainy black and white.
Star Trek was in color, and it had a great musical score.
NASA had no musical score, no catchy theme song.
The Enterprise fired off photon torpedoes, phasers, fought Klingons.
The Apollo space ship occasionally fired off a plastic bag filled with human waste. It was not fighting with anyone.
The Enterprise crew landed on planets with beautiful women or lizard people.
The Apollo crew would also land on a planet, but it was unlikely (highly) that they would run into any advanced civilizations controlled by a master computer that Captain Armstrong would outwit with a single question.
In short, Star Trek was exciting TV, the Apollo landings were boring TV.
The fact that one was real and the other fiction actually mattered little to an audience that was used to watching exciting TV on their home sets. They were also used to changing the channel when the content got boring.
The trips to the moon got boring fast.
The Apollo Mission to the Moon Show was cancelled after three years. No one has ever gone back to the moon since. Nor has anyone renewed the series.
The Star Trek mission to seek out new life, explore new worlds and go where no man has ever gone before, however, has been renewed ad infinitum and now, 50 years later, is still going strong.
The reason Apollo was cancelled was because it was boring.
It was just plain bad TV.
It did not rate.
The reason Star Trek kept getting renewed, and not only renewed, but spun off into nearly a dozen similar series, AND became movies, and sold action figures and toys and uniforms and tricorders and phasers was because it was exciting. It was good TV.
Did anyone buy the Gene Cernan action figure?
I think not.