The world is marking the first human landing on the moon, 50 years ago today: a mind-boggling achievement of determination, engineering, and (as it turns out) perspective on our own world.
However, it has also been over 46 years since the last human landing on the moon. For that matter, eight years ago tomorrow marks the last time the United States was even able to fly its own astronauts in orbit: since then, astronauts have relied on Russian Soyuz launches to make it to the International Space Station.
Flashy press conferences promise us (literally!) the Moon, colony ships to Mars, space tourism, and mining the wealth of the asteroids — however, we live in a world in which an eccentric billionaire can put a car into space as a publicity stunt, yet US astronauts still depend on the largesse of another country just to make orbit.
Privatizing space has had the not-at-all unexpected consequence of taking the dream of space and making it the toy, the hunting grounds, even the free ride at taxpayer expense for wealthy individuals and large corporations. While the space industry has raked in billions with promises, NASA has been asked, nay, commanded to go ever “smaller, faster, cheaper, better” — and largely succeeded, often wildly with missions far outstripping their original target operating lifetimes.
In 1961, NASA had scarcely put an astronaut into space — and not even into orbit — when President Kennedy launched the Apollo Program; within the eight ensuing years, the men and women of NASA worked madly to unlock the secrets of spaceflight for the first time to our nearest celestial neighbor.
That was 50 years ago. With all our existing know-how and almost unimaginably more advanced computing technology, it is now over eight years and running just to reach orbit again.
NASA is awesome at accomplishing the awesome. This weekend, and hereon, as we celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing, let’s start talking about moving some of the focus of space exploration away from publicity-chasing wealthy figures and back to the hard-working folks at NASA. It’s long past time, even and especially in the realm of crewed spaceflight, to let — nay, help — NASA be the awesome, victorious pioneer of space it was founded to be, and make space be not just the playground of the wealthy but a dream we can all share in.