Neil Armstrong passed away last week.
Those of us who, in spite of having come of age in the ’60s can remember some of it remember that once, we traveled between worlds and thought the investment worthwhile. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface, all of us stepped there … “One giant leap for mankind,” as he put it, at a time when “mankind” was understood to include both men and women.
Sure, there was carping about spending on space travel when there were problems to solve here on earth. It was based on a misunderstanding, though: As Isaac Asimov pointed out, we didn’t take billions of dollars’ worth of gold to the moon and bury it there. We spent it all right here on earth, employing scientists, engineers, mechanics, construction workers.
If the only benefit we cared about was economic impact, the innovations funded by the space program made it one of the four best investments we ever made as a society (and by “as a society” I mean made through our collective will, exercised through our government), along with the transcontinental railroad, interstate highway system, and Internet.
Financial benefit isn’t the only kind of benefit worth tallying, though. At a time when U.S. society was shattering into pieces, visiting the moon was something astonishing the United States accomplished that no other country on earth could do. And yes, U.S. society was that bad. Those who describe our current political dialog as the worst they’ve ever seen don’t remember the Democratic Convention of 1968, when Chicago’s mayor screamed the k-word at Abraham Ribicoff while his police ran riot over the hippies occupying Grant Park.
It was that bad. Being “part of the system” was enough to brand a person as beyond the pale among a significant segment of the population, and they weren’t entirely wrong: The “system” was, at the time, corrupt, racist, sexist, and, for many, desperate to an extent far beyond the worst of 2012.
Our predecessors in the field of IT (it was called “data processing” back then) were, by the way, despised by most Americans, who weren’t entirely wrong in feeling that way, as computer errors led to ordinary citizens receiving enormous and incorrect bills for which collection agencies dunned them (and also, on more than one occasion, their receiving entirely accurate bills for $0 past due — pay immediately or we’ll turn you over to a collection agency).
Back then, a popular act of protest against “the system” was to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the punch card enclosed with the bill, disobeying the vendor’s admonition to the contrary.
And yet, the ’60s were also a time when America’s best minds became scientists and engineers so they could work at NASA to invent something that could help us get to the moon. Now, those with equivalent talent become “quants” who work on Wall Street to invent financial derivatives so as to make themselves wealthy enough to buy the moon.
And it was a time when a favorite expression among those in the counterculture was, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” a sentiment I haven’t heard expressed in any form in the decades that followed, and sorely miss.
Also in the ’60s favor: Disco hadn’t been invented yet.
In 1969 we could go to the moon. In 2012, not only can’t we, we seem to have lost our appetite for it … for exploration for its own sake, for investing in knowledge gained for its own sake, and for investing when the returns are something our descendants will see, not ourselves.
Here’s how bad it is: Curiosity (the Mars rover, not the character trait) cost each and every American less than ten bucks, and yet I know people who complain about the expense.
Neil Armstrong was a proxy for all of us, for what we as Americans, and as human beings, could be, in the middle of a war in Vietnam that showed our ability to be the exact opposite.
On his death, his family released a statement that reads in part: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
Do more. Give him a nod as well. Ask yourself whether, given a choice, you’d rather be remembered for the wealth you accumulated, or for being the first person to walk on the moon.