Yesterday we lost an American hero in Astronaut and first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. I happened to be born at the tail end of the Apollo Moon missions, and as such that program, the astronauts, and NASA played a not so small part in my childhood. The afterglow of those moon missions was still fresh in America at that time, and with it came the feeling and spirit that we, as a country, and even the human race, are capable of such tremendous endeavors that when one really thinks about it are still remarkable to this very day. I think the fact that following the Apollo moon missions manned spaceflight has never been further than orbiting around Earth is testament to the remarkability of those lunar landings; and Neil Armstrong was the first.
With his famous quote, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” You would think that anyone who could utter such a cleverly subtle way to encapsulate such a momentous occasion might be one to seek and stay in the spotlight. Neil Armstrong wasn’t one of those people. Mr. Armstrong was a quiet man, who described himself as a nerdy engineer. Upon splash down of the tiny capsule called Columbia, Neil Armstrong could have seized upon his immediate popularity for power, money, and though he already earned prestige by walking on the moon, he could have gotten more, but he didn’t. Instead Neil Armstrong accepted a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati, after serving briefly (1 year) in ARPA. He never once sought accolades, nor attention for, his unique position in the history of mankind, and that is a rare and noble trait to have, one that makes someone even more of a hero in my mind, because it was never about him, and he knew it. So today, I would like to say, Good Luck and God Speed Neil Armstrong, you will be missed.
If you are person who was born from the mid 1960’s to the early to mid 1970’s then there is probably a good chance that you wanted to be an astronaut when you grew up. It isn’t too hard to understand why; astronauts back then were American heroes who were blazing the trails into the final frontier of outer space. Yes, they were boldly going where no one has gone before, and it all culminated with the Apollo missions to the moon. It seemed that fantasy had finally become reality and that we were on a destined track to explore the solar system, and the stars beyond; and then the real reality set in. That reality was twofold; (1) space exploration was/is expensive, and (2) the odds were really stacked against the vast majority of us of ever becoming astronauts.
With regards to the first little piece of reality, the Apollo moon program cost the American tax payer over $100 billion, adjusted for inflation, and over the almost 60 years of manned space flight roughly $500 billion has been spent. Given the current state of America’s finances (almost $16 trillion in debt) it isn’t too hard to see why there is no big rush by NASA to launch a manned mission to Mars anytime soon — if ever. So, for the time being we, as a country, should be content with simply flying our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and usually aboard a Russian rocket. Yeah, NASA is a far cry from its glory days isn’t it?
As far as the second little piece of reality, where the odds are stacked against most of us becoming astronauts, well that is still true too, but only kind of. There is a burgeoning space tourism industry developing that has opened the door for mere mortals to experience space flight, but much like number one above, they are very, very expensive. There is a new company out there which is actually planning eight month long trips to lunar orbit and back and it is actually selling seats on these “missions,” but before you start making reservations and re-reading “The Right Stuff” you might want to consider this little tidbit of information; the price of a ride to the moon and back will run you about $160 millionâ€¦ Yeah, it appears that space exploration is still pretty damn expensive, and that the odds are still very long that many of us will ever be able to realize our childhood dream of launching beyond the harsh grasp of Earth’s gravity; but we all still can dream, can’t we?