Forty-three years ago NASA completed the final Apollo mission, placing American astronauts on the surface of the moon for the last time. In honor of that program, our language still preserves the term “moonshot” to describe a venture of such technical daring and human significance that it transforms our world.
In the decades since the last moon landing almost every President has backed a grand proposal for manned missions elsewhere in our solar system. Those plans remain hollow. The technical challenges, though significant, have never been impressive enough to stand in our way. We haven’t formed a realistic plan to send human beings to Mars because we’ve yet to find a purpose for such a mission.
Though the idea of space travel still fills us with wonder and admiration, one lesson from the Apollo Program stands out above all others. There is nothing up there for us. This blue marble is our only home.
When pressed to explain some purpose for the Apollo Program beyond the mere wonder of seeing human beings on the moon, proponents mention the scientific and technical advances that emerged in its wake. Those benefits are very real and extend far beyond Velcro and Tang, but they are less a product of space exploration, per se, then of government capital investment in science and technology. There were and are many ways to foster that kind of technical progress without flinging human beings around the solar system.
Occasionally, someone will mention a more distant purpose for the mission – the need to prepare our species to live beyond Earth. What really drove us to the moon is the same drive, deeply rooted in our evolution, which drove Europeans across the Atlantic. We wander.
For millennia our ancestors explored relentlessly. In each new environment they exploited the available resources until the landscape changed, then then moved on to find better conditions elsewhere. Civilization is still new to us, still an evolutionary anomaly. We have not yet mastered the art of sustainable, settled living. Our bred-in solution to the damage we inflict on our surroundings is to follow the horizon toward new ones.
As our understanding of the universe deepens, two disturbing facts are becoming clear. First, there are no wild places left to conquer. We now own and control the fate of every patch of land and sea on this planet. Second, there is no other world waiting for us beyond Earth. Perhaps in time we will find some suitable alternative home in the universe, but not before we’ve mastered civilization here. Humankind will thrive or fail here on this spinning rock.
No conceivable damage we might ever inflict on Earth could render it half as hostile to life as Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter. To continue to survive and thrive we must confront an evolutionary glitch. We must confront our urge to consume and migrate, developing instead a means to sustain civilization that does not destroy our surroundings. There is no alternative.
Sixty years of space exploration has given us massive advances in science and technology, but that may not be its most significant legacy. Perhaps more telling, our space exploration has produced an orbiting garbage field so dense that it threatens future missions.
Every well-conducted experiment is a success. It may not prove the conclusions anticipated by its hypothesis, but even by “failing” it pushes the boundaries of our understanding. Our programs to place human beings in the solar system have been just this kind of failure. Their bold exploration has not found another place for human beings to live, but by failing they have shined a new light on our dilemma.
This precious rock on which we live is a great gift. It is time we learned how to live on it in a manner that preserves it for those who will follow us.