The challenges of today wait on earth

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The Apollo 11 mission was the most impressive example of what humans can achieve. Today such a milestone would look different. A commentary.

On July 21, 1969, at 2:56 a.m. World Time, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. A little later, Edwin Aldrin followed. And a few days later the two and Michael Collins, who had been waiting in orbit, were back on Earth. It was the most spectacular, most expensive, most elaborate and most complex non-primarily military achievement that people in engineering, science, logistics and politics had ever put on their feet.

It would be a good idea to glorify all this on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. But you can also try an objective view. This does not diminish the performance of the astronauts and the 400,000 people who have worked for the Apollo programme. It doesn’t relativize the sacrifices made – like the three Apollo 1 astronauts who lost their lives.

And one must not forget the efforts of the “other side”: Michael Collins recently said that he and his colleagues had never made it to the moon, “had it not been for our competitors”. Even a realistic look back makes us marvel: at technology, science and sustainable political will.

Although: the amazement is no longer so certain today. We live in a technologized part of the world that is comfortable, above all due to scientific achievements, and free thanks to democratic rules. But absurdly, we are increasingly critical of technology and science and tired of democracy. Many have long since forgotten how to marvel.

A realistic look back also shows that until shortly before the glorious end, a majority of Americans were very critical of the programme. Nor can it be denied that the reason for wanting to fly to the moon was not primarily science or a spirit of discovery, but political symbolism in the battle of systems. In addition, resources were consumed – and truly burned in huge quantities in the missiles – that could have helped to do some good work on Earth. And the scientific value of the missions was significant, but limited.

Complex challenges

Was it worth it? The question cannot be answered objectively. But the more interesting one is: What has the whole thing shown us other than television pictures from a distance of 400,000 kilometres? What can we learn from it, apart from a few insights into the origins of the Earth, the Moon and the solar system?

One answer could be: Apollo was the most impressive example to date that people in free countries are able, with the technical, material and non-material means at their disposal, to master the greatest, most difficult and most complex challenge they can face in a very short time.

Everyone knows what the current complex challenges are called: climate crisis, ecosystem and species extinction, migration, peacekeeping, feeding the billions.

The “moonshot” of the present would be to address these problems with resources, devotion, optimism, vigour and a certain willingness to sacrifice and renounce, “in peaceful intent for all mankind” – as it says on the plaque that Armstrong and Aldrin left on the moon 50 years ago today. That’s not realistic, for sure. But on a day like today one will be allowed to dream a little.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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