July 17th, 2009
12:30 PM ET

The new case for space

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/16/art.moon..jpg caption="A view of the Earth appears over the Lunar horizon as the Apollo 11 Command Module comes into view of the Moon before Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. leave in the Lunar Module, Eagle, to become the first men to walk on the Moon's surface."]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

On the day that Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, 40 years ago, I sat on the living room floor of our Illinois home, holding my breath. The fluttering, grainy images of the “small step” brought relief, exultation, and disbelief from my family. For weeks afterward I played “moon landing” in the backyard, and thought that with a really powerful pair of binoculars I might look at the moon and see the flag. (Subsequent experiments, btw, proved that hypothesis a tad weak. Kind of like the one I had about how we could breathe underwater if we started with a really deep gulp.)

The moon landing crowned a decade of some of the most ambitious, excellent, and successful technological development our species has ever known. That was the giant leap. The ‘60’s had been as turbulent as a Maury taping. Vietnam. Civil rights. Battle lines between old and young, hawks and doves, and Apollo was a bright star amid often dark days.

Today, however, the U.S. space program sits in another half-light, and it is not clear if it is dawn or dusk. President Obama supports it. Congress seems generally willing to maintain funding. But too many members of the public are not entirely sure what the goal is these days, and even when they are, it can feel a little “been there/done that.” Right now we have unmanned probes looking more closely at the moon, and we’re hoping to send humans back to stake out some turf in the not terribly distant future. Then from a sort of moon base we might launch deeper space explorations, like to Mars, for example.

But all of that takes time, patience, and political leaders willing to stick with it through elections, recessions, crises, and wars. In the ‘60’s we had the Russians and the promise of an assassinated young president, John F. Kennedy, to push us. We had a national will to explore space.

What space proponents must do is reignite the public’s imagination with the modern reasons to press on. Space is the birthplace for oceans of science and technology. China, with its very active space program, is graduating close to a quarter million new engineers each year. We are far below even half that number. The explosively hostile environment of space demands technological excellence, and likely somewhere within your arm’s reach is a product forged in that furnace; something you would not have without that surge of invention, and advancement that grew out of the space program.

The emptiness of space is where imagination lives.

I met Neil Armstrong last year. And it was like meeting a man from the past, and future all at once.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Space • Tom Foreman
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I watched those fuzzy grainy pictures in 1969 with my youth group from church. There was no doubt that what we saw was real. With the re-digitized increased resolution pictures they have of it now its even more exciting to see because of the clarity of the pictures. I wonder if Neil Armstrong can even put into words what it felt like as he put his foot onto the moon – the first human to have done so. What he did say – one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind – was so appropriate even today.

    July 17, 2009 at 8:15 pm |
  2. Michael C. McHugh

    Sorry, I meant I watched it in 1969 with my great grandmother, and never doubted it was "real".

    July 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  3. Michael C. McHugh

    I watched the moon landing in 1960 with my great grandmother, who was literally born in the horse and buggy era, at a time when the Civil War and slavery were still living memories. She was silent through most of it, saying only that in her day, most people could not even have imagined such a thing. In the distant future, we will explore other solar systems, and even though I don't expect to live to see that, I think bases on the moon and Mars are possibilities even in our lifetimes.

    July 17, 2009 at 3:05 pm |
  4. Redbull

    Yo AC! Do you think the Apollo 11 missions were a hoax? Pictures don't lie. It would be great if you do a special on this. Thanks

    July 17, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  5. uzma

    It was no doubt a giant leap for mankind when man stepped on the moon so many years ago.But what puzzles me is that how come we haven't seen footage of man stepping on the moon again after that. Technology has advanced so much since then, that not only America but Russia, China, and other countries should have also sent their missions to the moon.And now the claim by NASA that they have lost footage of that mammoth event and probably retaped over it , somehow, makes me doubtful of the whole affair!

    July 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  6. Ken Sawyer

    When I think of space the first thing I think of is the inside of our government officials heads. Another words there is nothing there of any substance and usless to man.

    July 17, 2009 at 12:49 pm |