Jul 19 2009

Apollo 11 and the Outer Limits of Human Achievement

Published by at 3:03 pm under Current Events,Globe and Post,WorldView

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, arguably the greatest collective achievement in the history of the human race, has arrived. Did you remember?

July 20, 1969, ought to be a date burnt into the memory of every living human being, right up there with your birthday or national celebrations like Independence Day. Yet, if not for the fair amount of media coverage this month, this July 20 would have come and gone without any notice from myself and a good number of my fellow citizens.

Why? Is it because the moon landing is seen as an American achievement, rather than a global one? Does the rest of the world’s latent and growing anti-Americanism feed into this? Is it the result of (easily debunked) Internet conspiracy theories that the moon landings were actually filmed in a secret Hollywood studio? Is it because human beings naturally have a “been there, done that” mentality that automatically downgrades all events down to an interesting but relatively unremarkable blip on the continuum of human history?

There are those who suggest the moon landing was a mistake. Some would say it was a terrible allocation of resources we might have put towards, say, topping up our social security pension funds. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked that the mission’s main benefit was to annoying whiners and complainers:

We never should have landed a man on the moon. It’s a mistake. Now everything is compared to that one accomplishment. I can’t believe they could land a man on the moon . . . and taste my coffee!… They can’t make a prescription bottle top that’s easy to open?… Neil Armstrong should have said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for every complaining SOB on the face of the Earth. “

We can joke about it, but the mission to the moon really hints at the kind of accomplishments human beings can accomplish in our own societies.

Putting aside the technological advances required to send a spacecraft to an alien world 384,392 kilometers away, the countless dangers the astronauts overcame in the moon mission were literally unprecedented:

You and your brave colleagues are put into a giant tin can that might just blow up on liftoff. If it doesn’t blow up on the launching pad, it might just break up somewhere further up, spreading your ashes across the ocean. If you get that far, now you have to get through the vast and utterly lethal expanse of freezing space where unknown cosmic radiation emanates from countless stars.

You survive the flight over, and now you have to land on the moon without crashing. You know that if there’s a problem, you’re stuck. There will be no rescue mission. A quick science fiction-inspired death from alien monsters scratching at your hull might actually be preferable to succumbing slowly and hopelessly as your supplies dwindle and the oxygen runs out.

The landing works like a charm, and you want to go outside and explore, keeping in mind that a small tear in your space suit could spell certain doom. You manage that trick OK. All of humanity is celebrating your success. But now you have to complete your voyage in reverse, hoping not to burn up as your ship goes through Earth’s atmosphere.

All the while, you’re thinking, “nobody who has ever lived has ever done this before. Those NASA guys think they’ve nailed down every variable you could think of, but what if they missed just one trick?” There are a million unknowns and just one problem can ruin this mission.

A million dangers, and yet the mission was a success. Humans had achieved a feat that no previous generation had the capability to carry out (and which no subsequent generation has repeated).

When you think about what was achieve with the Apollo mission, one can’t help but wonder whether the global problems that seem so unmanageable to resolve right now are really as scary as we think. Conflict in the Middle East? Climate change and energy shocks? Terrorism and religious fanaticism? Slavery? Piracy? Corruption?

Pick a problem. Humans can solve it, if they have the will. That’s the lesson we should all take home Apollo 11.

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