Neil Armstrong’s obituaries were only half-right. Yes, Armstrong was the first human to step foot on the moon. What’s possibly more significant, though, is that he was also one of the last. Just 10 more men touched down on the lunar surface after Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited in July 1969. Some of the others are also already dead. Nobody else has left low earth orbit in decades. The Chinese might go in the next few years—but it’s also possible that they’ll get there, look around, and make the same decision that the Americans did: Stick closer to home.
Why was that decision made? Probably because it’s really hard (and really expensive) to send humans into space and keep them alive.
Space is no place for a living thing. There is no atmosphere, but there is plenty of radiation. (True story: Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacecraft had to rotate slowly like a chicken on a spit during its journey to and from the moon, in order to avoid being completely fried by the sun.) The pockmarked surface of the moon further suggests the near-cosmos is full of asteroids, comets, and meteors that blow up like a small bomb—or worse—when they collide with you.
So the job of astronauts—more than research, more than planting flags—is to simply stay alive. Spacecraft must be designed to withstand those meteor hits, to keep the oxygen in and radiation out, and to keep astronauts from withering away in zero-gravity because they have no need of muscles up there. Even when everything is done right, it’s still a tricky proposition: Astronauts nearly died on the Mir space station back in 1997 because a cargo ship smacked into their floating home.
All of this costs a lot of money: One recent estimate suggests that each manned moon landing cost about $18 billion in today’s money. NASA, needless to say, hasn’t had that kind of dough on hand for decades.
Robots, on the other hand, are relatively cheap: Curiosity—the Mars rover—cost just $2.5 billion. And no humans are endangered. If you want to see the future of space flight, the automated Mars missions seem a better representation than Armstrong’s historic voyage. Cheaper, safer, and still tremendously useful. What’s not to like?
And yet: The idea of human space flight still calls to us, doesn’t it? It’s deeply embedded in our popular culture, in the stories we tell each other, in franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars and many others. We believe that we belong out there, or will someday.
Super-smart scientists like Stephen Hawking say this is natural—that space flight may be crucial to the survival of the human species, that we must spread out into the stars before we use up and destroy our own planet. The idea seems a little preposterous: Again, it’s very hard to live out there, and Hawking’s rationale for space travel seems to let humans off the hook instead of simply treating the planet, and each other, correctly.
More likely, space travel is something we do for the same reason humans climb Mount Everest: Because it’s there. Hearty adventurers can make that trip, but nobody’s building apartments up there–and for good reason. It’s inhospitable.
Which means that if we were entirely or even mostly rational, we’d stick closer to the ground. But our romantic selves, the selves that want to “slip the surly bonds of earth,” well, they have a voice in all of this too. And it is our romantic selves that were saddened at this weekend’s news of Neil Armstrong’s death: We feel we have forfeited something important.
Some perspective on this: I am nearly 40 years old—older than half of all Americans now living. No human has been to the moon in my lifetime. My grandfather is a still-robust 86, born before both jet planes and talking pictures, and he was just a few years older than I am now when Armstrong made his landing.
The future belonged to our grandparents, you see. It doesn’t quite so obviously belong to us. Maybe we need to make our peace with that. But maybe we don’t.