Forty years ago today Neil Armstrong did what no other member of our species had ever done before when he stepped from the ladder of the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon.
This was an outstanding achievement, by any measure, and one that has become emblematic of what we are capable of. I couldn’t possibly do justice to what it must have meant to people at the time – I was just a few months old when this took place – but there are wonderful accounts all over the web, and I’ve been enjoying reading almost all of them. I’m sure I would have had the same emotions on that day if I hadn’t been busy drooling, filling my diaper, and being forced to take a nap.
Along with these initial reactions to the event, I’ve also been reading other accounts of how the directions of people’s lives were driven by the moon landing. These are also fascinating, and I have been particularly interested by scientists who feel that it was this event that helped fuel their interest in science, because my own experience was somewhat different.
Although I had a healthy interest in science (as well as a lot of other subjects) from an early age, I have never felt that the space landings had an effect on it. I was certainly enthralled by the space program, read magazines about it, and the newspapers, and watched anything that was shown on television about it. I thought about being an astronaut, and fantasized about the excitement of traveling to other planets and beyond. Star Trek presumably had a hand in all this. But what grabbed me was the exploration, and the adventure. Not the science.
My current view is that while there may be a reasonable argument for the manned space program on the basis of exploration (and I find the idea exciting myself), it is hard to make a scientific argument for it. I often hear the argument that the space program is nevertheless useful to science because it inspires people to become scientists, or at least to be interested in science. This must be true at some level, but I’ve never found it a compelling argument. Nevertheless, this isn’t the point I’m trying to support with my comments above – clearly many scientists have felt inspired to be scientists by manned space travel. It just happens that I wasn’t one of them.
In any case, having been suitably serious, awed and humbled by the heroic endeavors of NASA, Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and those who followed them, I thought I’d leave you with something a little lighter. Here’s British transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard’s (NSFW, due to some naughty language) take on how the astronauts could have made the moon landing even more entertaining.