Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

When a celebrity dies these days, Facebook is almost always the bearer of bad news. Today was no exception, as I learned of Neil Armstrong’s passing from a post on the social network. Unlike with other celebrities, only a handful of friends commented on it, which saddened me even further.

Here was the first man to walk on our moon–an achievement by which all other human endeavors have since been judged–and his passing was treated as a largely inconsequential event. While Armstrong eschewed the limelight, he was still a hero for many, and his words (misspoken as they were) will continue to echo through time.

There are other heroes from the 1960’s space program still alive, including my personal favorite, Jim Lovell, but there are no new ones to replace them. While I was not alive to experience it, I can recognize the magnitude of events as they unfolded. From 1957 to 1975 we had: our first satellite (Sputnik), our first men in space (Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard), our first space walks (Alexey Leonov and Ed White),  our first trip to the moon (Apollo 8, which included the aforementioned Jim Lovell), our first (and only) six missions to the surface of the moon (Apollo 11-12, 14-17), and finally a joint U.S.-Soviet Mission (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project). Many of these explorers are no longer with us.

Each and every astronaut throughout the history of the space program, deserves respect for risking their lives for the pursuit of scientific discovery. Although NASA has, and continues, to search the depths of the cosmos with unmanned missions and satellites, the Hubble telescope cannot inspire us the way that Armstrong did, nor does the Curiosity Rover captivate us like a manned mission to Mars would.

Armstrong represented an era where Americans didn’t shy away from big problems or dreaming big. Those days, sadly, are long gone. Our Earthly problems have become intractable, and our dreams of future space endeavors have faded away.

Many of NASA’s detractors like to ask, “How can we spend money out there, when it is needed down here?” I have long believed the two to be inexorably linked. By spending money out there, we improve our lives here through greater investment in science and math education, and new patents and technology. (Don’t believe me? Visit this site). Also, it will force us to see ourselves differently, and to see our differences as easier to overcome.

Another late hero of mine, Carl Sagan, suggested that the image of the Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts is one of the most important pictures ever taken. From the book Pale Blue Dot, Sagan writes:

It has become an icon of our age. There’s Antarctica at what Americans and Europeans so readily regard as the bottom, and then all of Africa stretching above it…You can make out the blue of the ocean, the yellow-red of the Sahara, and the Arabian desert, the brown-green of forest and grassland. And yet there is no sign of humans in this picture, not reworking of the Earth’s surface, not our machines, not ourselves: We are too small and our statecraft is too feeble to be seen by a spacecraft between the Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, our obsession with nationalism is nowhere in evidence.

This image was only made possible because of the Apollo mission. It, along with the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong and his ilk, go beyond our political, religious, and social differences to get to the core of our humanity. Our history is that of discovery. We evolved to seek out new lands and territories. We left our home on the plains of Africa to inhabit every continent on Earth, spare for the frozen wasteland that is Antarctica.

To pull back from the cosmos does a disservice, not just to Armstrong, but to all of humanity. We need more heroes, and a new mission for tomorrow. Without further exploration, we have conceded that we have already accomplished the best we can do as a nation and as a species. I want to believe that we are capable of more than a handful of flights to the moon over forty years ago. And I want a hero to prove it to me.

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