I will never forget the night of July 20th, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I was at my grandparent's house in Orlando Florid throughout the mission. Being only 12 years old I could not drive the 60 or so miles to the launch site to be an eyewitness to the launch. I pleaded and begged in vain for us to drive there, but was repeatedly told: "It will be too crowded, we'll be far away, and you can see things more clearly on TV anyway." Sigh, 60 miles-I might as well have been in Antarctica.
Anyway, on the night of July 20th, like perhaps a billion other people across the planet I stared spellbound at the caption on the TV: "Live from the Moon" as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on another world. At the time the human future seemed limitless.
Despite the ongoing slaughter in Vietnam which played out nightly on the TV, despite the riots and assassinations that characterized the era, we, humans, American humans at that, had fulfilled an ancient dream and actually traveled to another world! Surely by, say the 40th anniversary of this historic event we would have space stations, colonies on the Moon, astronauts would have landed on Mars, even the far stars might be coming into reach-right?
Well, as we know that's not the way things worked out. We do have an international space station, but after the space shuttle's are retired next year, the US won't have any way to get there for years to come, if ever. Clearly, the future isn't what it used to be. But, why not?
We went to the Moon for the wrong reasons-we were motivated by fear of the Soviets, by a desire for revenge (for Sputnik and Gagarin) of a sorts, and by geopolitical considerations-to "prove" the superiority of our political and economic system. Only one actual scientist ever landed on the Moon-geologist Harrison Schmidt on the final Apollo mission Apollo 17.
Given these motives, once we'd landed there and the Soviets had shown they couldn't compete, there was no further motive to continue the program. Adventure, exploration, scientific discovery-motives such as these couldn't sustain Apollo, or take us on to Mars, simply because the "space race" of the 1960's wasn't about these things. Once Armstrong planted the Stars and Stripes on the Moon, the game was over-we had "won."
What never faded away, at least in my own mind, was the belief that humanity could transcend its instinctive, selfish, and greedy primal nature-that we could come together as a species, and transcend. That life and consciousness emerging from its womb on Earth could sweep across the Cosmos in the ages to come. This dream was widespread: A Jefferson Airplane song from the album entitled Blows Against the Empire described humanity's becoming a space-faring species: "...and then more than human could we be, 'cause human's truly locked to this planetary circle..." Alas.
Forty years later we've pretty much squandered the brief burst of concentrated energy in the form of oil, natural gas, and coal, which gave us our one and only shot at such transcendence. Soon, as the oil begins to run out civilization will be compelled to contract, to hoard dwindling resources to maintain existing infrastructure.
What we call "food" is basically 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy inefficiently converted into one calorie of edible substance. It does not take much imagination to envision what happens to humanity's currently expanding population when hydrocarbon energy becomes scarce or extremely expensive. And all of this occurring while the climate changes, also adversely impacting agriculture...leading inexorably to collapse.
I've written about what I believe we need to do to deal with our increasingly dire situation in my two books (Infinity's Rainbow and The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow) and in my recent essays Consciousness and Complexity and Mind and Organization. If enough of us can act quickly enough, and decisively enough, perhaps, someday our future will yet become what it should be, what it should have been already.
Looking up at tonight's waning crescent sliver of a Moon, I recall that moment forty years ago and the hope for emergent humankind's peaceful, space-faring and transcendent future ...