When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. My favorite G.I. Joe action figure was the astronaut, Countdown. I had NASA posters on my wall. At age 5 I visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I dreamed of traveling through space and piloting the space shuttle. At so young and impressionable an age, nothing seemed cooler than pushing the limits of space travel and exploring the unknown as an astronaut.
Flash forward a few decades and while my ambitions have waned alongside NASA’s, my love of the “final frontier” remains as strong as ever. What I’m beginning to realize though is that my love for space travel is rooted in a nostalgia for a period in NASA’s history that I never even experienced. Books like The Right Stuff and films like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 fueled my passion for space. This even though they depict events that happened years before my birth. My passion, I discovered, comes not from some genuine love of astronomy and science but from my own imagination.
In nostalgia, I am not alone. Recently, the Atlantic published a series of photos from Project Gemini, marking its fiftieth (!) anniversary. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed plans to recover the Saturn V rockets from the bottom of the ocean, plans that astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson described as “ApolloNecrophilia” (see photo below). We find ourselves trapped in this deep longing for NASA’s glorious past, a time when we walked on the moon and when each new trip into space felt like the coming of a more-perfect future. Today, many Americans feel that space travel would unite a culturally and politically divided country through a common cause and renew a sense of civic duty and patriotism.
In the 1960s, the NASA program felt urgent. Spurred on by a race against the Soviets and the legacy of John F. Kennedy, NASA worked hard to put a man on the moon by 1969. After this accomplishment though, public interest in the space program waned. The Vietnam War, domestic unrest, and ongoing scandal put an end to the moon program. The last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, touched down on the moon on December 11, 1972. Since then, there has been no effort to return to the moon or beyond. Several presidents, most ambitiously George W. Bush, have vowed to send astronauts back to the moon, but the same problems that plagued the program in 1973 persist today.
Why do we continue to dream about the accomplishments of the past? The Apollo program represents a time when American science captured the imaginations of millions and achieved the impossible: they put a man on the moon. It’s hard not to think back on this accomplishment without amazement. Technology of the time was almost laughably archaic. It is perhaps for this reason, more than for any other, that people skeptically question whether we ever landed on the moon (one skeptic crossed the line when he called distinguished astronaut Buzz Aldrin a “coward and a liar”). Many wonder: If we could go to the moon in 1969, why can’t we go today?
Humans expect technology to improve our lives and teach us about ourselves. In this vein, the space program tapped into our deeply human desire for an understanding of our universe. Whether or not the NASA space program actually improved our lives, it lent us wonder and made us believe that anything was humanly possible. Today, companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are working to make space tourism accessible in our lifetimes. We all want a chance to stare out at the cosmos and ponder the meaning of our existence. Their efforts remind me of something that Apollo 15 commander David Scott said while on the surface of the moon:
“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.”