Last night, we braved the crowds and the heat to go down to watch Go For The Moon, a multimedia spectacular in front of the Smithsonian Castle. The experience was like nothing I’ve ever seen, or could imagine. Using the Washington Monument as a canvas, along with a pair of split screens framing the obelisk, the incredible team at the National Air & Space Museum and 59 Productions made magic.
Projecting a life-sized Saturn V rocket launch on the Washington Monument, and eventually the arrival of Eagle on the Moon, along with the Rice University speech and the achievement of the Apollo programs, the audience is left to sit in awe for 17 minutes as the video plays out. The score, by Jeff Beal, provides additional encouragement.
The Rice University speech, famous for it’s “We choose to go to the Moon… because it will be hard” also has an incredible section on ethical leadership in technological pursuits:
“For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.”Pres. John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962.
President Kennedy said what so many miss: the application of science and technology has no direct conscience of its own, but rather it is the product of people, in their designs, intents, applications, choices, audiences, marketing, and execution of it. The parallels between the strife of the 1960s and the 2010s was clear last night down on the Mall. We were reminded that Apollo happened amid the unjust Vietnam War, amid the unjust fight against the Civil Rights Act, amid the countercultural rebellion against post-war norms.
“We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque on the leg of Eagle, where it remains today. We are capable of doing incredible things as a nation, and NASA is the embodiment of those goals of exploration, of science, of application of technology. It’s just a part of the funding of science that we do as a nation, as part of our pursuit of the future. We need to do more science, not less. We need to do more exploring, not less.
We need the next velcro, the next teflon, the next LED bulb, the next micro computer, and programs like NASA’s Apollo can build those things, in concert with the National Science Foundation. We can do incredible things when we make science and technology into public goods. Engineering and exploration in the pursuit of the furtherance of humanity is a worthy goal for us all.
And we need it now, more than ever.
We took Charlie with us, last night, to see the rocket go up. We’ve been watching From The Earth To The Moon this week, and I know while he was with my parents they talked a lot about the original moon landing in 1969. Like his father, and his grandfather, he thrust his fist in the air as the rocket went up.
I’m sure there are those who see the rocket programs and exploration of space as secondary or tertiary to the other problems of our present. I can understand that. But what will save our planet in the next century is science. It’s certainly not sticking our head in the sand and hoping for divine intervention that isn’t coming. We have to participate in our own rescue. As we bake in record heat — more of a braise, here in DC this weekend — it’s more and more clear that our climate is changing, and with it our future habitability. Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novels of the last decade are fairly bleak and fairly clear: if we’re getting through this, we’re doing it here, not living anywhere else. I think he’s got a point.
If there’s an Apollo program for Charlie’s generation, it may not be about Mars, or the Moon, or Titan or Enceladus. It might be here. But we have to keep going, keep pressing the boundaries of human space, pressing what we’re capable of.
In 50 years, I plan to be back out on the Mall with him for Apollo 100, helping him remember what came before, and what we have yet to accomplish.