Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking around on the moon. Those of us old enough to remember know how it absorbed the imagination of the country and much of the world, and can tell you just where we were when Neil Armstrong took that “small step” off the lander to the surface of another world. My parents got me and my sister up out of bed to watch the grainy black-and-white images, knowing that this was something we should not miss. And they were right.
This week has been a frenzy of events looking back at that historic moment. We visited the Strasenberg Planetarium, part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, where I took the image above; the large model moon is a fixture in their lobby. We attended a special presentation about the Apollo 11 landing. The highlight of the presentation was a replay of the entire 13-minute descent from lunar orbit to landing, including the view from the spacecraft windows and all the audio from the astronauts and within Mission Control. It was gripping, even though I knew how it ended! One of the things I had never known about before this week was the fact that the poor little onboard computer, trying to manage with a fraction of the power of my toothbrush, overloaded and shut down five times during this descent. Each time it was able to restart successfully, but nobody on the ground at the time knew why it was cutting out, and had to trust that it would come back. I’ve since learned more about what was going on and how one talented programmer basically saved the mission in this excellent article from Wired Magazine. This video is similar to the one I saw at the planetarium, and captures the tension of that moment well:
This story of the Little Computer That Couldn’t But Did Anyway leads me to a few larger points on Apollo, NASA, and space exploration in general.
- Space travel is dangerous. As with any other activity, we will be making a cost-benefit analysis, and the risks that go on the cost side of the equation are always going to be high. Nine American astronauts and six Russian cosmonauts died in the years leading up to the moon landings; 13 Americans and one Israeli died during space shuttle missions (details here). We’re a long, long way from the time when space travel will be as safe as automobile travel, and that’s not a very high bar.
- Space travel is expensive. NASA’s 2019 budget is $20.7 billion. That’s a big chunk of money, though still less than half a percent of the total $4.4 trillion budget. The money spent is another thing that goes into the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis we make when we decide whether space travel is worth it. It’s always going to cost a lot to build the machines and train the people needed to climb successfully out of Earth’s gravity well.
- Is money spent on space travel wasted? That’s a trickier question, because we have to ask what we get for that money and what we would do with it if we didn’t spend it on space travel. One thing that drives me crazy is when people talk about “throwing money away in space.” I picture astronauts opening their hatches and tossing out Benjamins, to float forever in the void. No, that’s not what happens. Money spent on space travel is spent right here on earth, paying the salaries of people who design and build all that complicated equipment. And what would we spend that money on if it didn’t go to space travel? There’s no guarantee that it would go to solve any of the world’s real problems. In 2018 the world spent twice as much at the movie box office than NASA’s entire budget. So perhaps the money spent on space (not in space) shouldn’t really go on the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis after all.
- People get excited about space. Not everyone, of course, but lots of us. The Apollo missions brought millions together across the world. There is excitement building now about future missions to Mars. Remember, not too long ago, how the world mourned the end of Opportunity, the last of the Martian rovers, after it extended its planned 90-day mission to nearly 15 years. You can get many different T-shirts commemorating Opportunity’s last words, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark” (though these were not literally its last words, since it didn’t communicate with us in words). That kind of excitement is what goes on the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis, along with the benefits that accrue from the intensive research and development efforts that spin off into our daily lives.
Was the moon shot worth it? My vote is a big YES. Huddling around a pile of dollars won’t solve any of the problems we face, but the kind of excitement space can generate can pull us together like nothing else can. Besides, the science and the data we get about Earth can help us address some of our most dire problems with respect to climate change and ecological balance. There are definite costs, but for me the benefit side of that equation outweighs them by a lot. Let’s go back!
What are your thoughts on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11?
Where do you stand on issues relating to space exploration?