Today’s column is an addendum — or, perhaps, even a bit of a rebuttal — to what I wrote here last week, when I ruminated on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and how far we haven’t gotten in exploring the cosmos. And all that still stands.
However, I also want to mention a moment from last Saturday night, which was the anniversary of that first moon landing.
Late in the evening, at about the same time 50 years prior that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon, I looked to the northern sky and watched the International Space Station (ISS) sail by. I could do this because a computer program told me when it would be overhead, where it would be and how long I could see it.
All this could be considered extraordinary — and, from a 1969 perspective, even mind-blowing. Mankind has a permanent presence in space; the ISS has been in orbit for about 20 years. It truly is international, with Americans, Russians and others working side by side. (America currently doesn’t have its own regular manned space program, so our astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians. Think about THAT for a moment.) The computer program that told me about the ISS flyover was, of course, an app on my smartphone — a real-life portable communicator that lets me talk to anyone anywhere.
But, here in the future (which is, by the way, a phrase none of us use nearly enough), the most extraordinary thing about all that is how extraordinary it isn’t. Seeing the ISS gliding fairly brightly across the heavens can be a routine event — on Tuesday night, for instance, it happened twice on successive orbits. I know this because my phone alerted me to the fact each time. The app that did this is free to anyone who wants to put it on their phone — and everybody, it seems, has mobile phones, from kids to senior citizens, that can do all kinds of things, even make actual phone calls.
In fact, that’s part of the future I dreamed of 50 years ago. And it really is amazing when you think about it from a clear perspective. So, when I sit down at a table with a group of people and half of them immediately whip out their smartphones and turn their attentions to … whatever, I have to both marvel at our technological evolution AND be irritated all at the same time.
The flight thing, or the relative lack thereof, still does grind on me some, because it has, for the past dozen decades, been an integral part of the human experience. If you’ve been reading the “On This Date” section of the Press & Dakotan lately, you may have noticed a couple of entries from 1919 detailing the stark, exhilarating newness of flight as a local phenomenon and how seeing flying machines in the air was still a noteworthy event. That wonder simply set the stage for what was to come.
And spaceflight is still part of that wonder and our future.
Last weekend on the Apollo 11 anniversary, NASA announced the completion of a new crew module, called Orion, for the next phase of space missions, which will be called Artemis, so named after the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo. Its goal is to return to the moon in the next five years, with another goal of establishing a “sustained human presence on and around the moon” by 2028, NASA said. That’s the point of the program, one agency official said. It’s not enough now to simply get back to the moon; it’s time to stay there and build from there.
And that’s what I was wishing to see 50 years ago.
So, the future that swirled in my young imagination in the summer of 1969 may yet be realized. We have advanced in so many other ways — ways that are remarkable and yet so commonplace that they now seem ordinary. We’re always advancing, always evolving. We’re a restless sort that’s forever yearning to move onward. And onward, it’s clear, is toward the stars.
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