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Dammit, Mr. Armstrong, We Should Have Showed You

2012 August 26

Neil Armstrong is dead.

The man had a good run.  As a boy, he wanted to fly airplanes.  He grew up to be a pilot.  Then he became an astronaut and walked on the moon.  He went on to live a full life the way he wanted, privately and without fanfare, in the arms of his family.  He was 82 when he died.

A good run, yes.

He was always best known for being the first human to set foot on the moon– no surprise there.  Generations have grown up, especially in the USA but worldwide, seeing his footprint, hearing of his unique place in history and taking it as inspiration.  In the years leading up to the moon shot, and for years afterward, science fiction writers wrote of space stations and lunar colonies in the future of the 1970s.  Then the 1980s.  Perhaps the 1990s.  Surely by the year 2000.

All those times have come and gone.  We’ve put innumerable satellites in orbit, sent probe after probe to this planet and that.  But, shortly after Neil broke trail, we stopped sending people.

It was too expensive, too distracting.  There were hungry people– or, more often, hungry corporations and wars to feed here at home.  Maybe there’s nothing out there, and even if there is, we can find it right here on Earth faster, easier, and cheaper.

We’ve always said such things to explorers.  Ultimately, we’ve always been wrong, we homebodies.  We always call the adventurous fools in the beginning, and with good reason.  A lot of them die.  At least, a higher percentage die young than do those who stay at home.  A lot of them fail.  Well, so do a lot of people who try new things.  Who venture into the uncertain.  Some of them turn out to be just plain nuts, chasing hallucinations.  Those are the ones we point at when we call the rest of them fools.

The thing is, we’d never have gotten anywhere, we overgrown primates, without our risk-taking crazy explorers of outer and inner space.  Our first distant ancestors who ventured out of the primeval forests in Africa, the ones who braved the strange terrain and powerful oceans to reach Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas, and the later ones, the ones we know of by name.  Some heroes, some villains; most of them a mix of the two, or as I like to call them, imperfect humans.  The Marco Polos, the Buddhas, the Gandhis, the Columbuses (oh, brave and visionary scoundrel and villain!).  The MLKs, the Malcom Xes, the… maybe you get my drift.  The people who stuck their necks out, for good and ill.

Mr. Armstrong was one of them.  Like all of them, he may have gotten the spotlight, but he’d never have gotten anywhere without a lot of others helping in one way or another: breaking trail with wild ideas before the world was ready, being part of the team, following after and capitalizing on what was discovered or inspired.

In the case of Mr. Armstrong and all the others who went to the moon, we’ve fallen down on the job of following up.  When he walked on the moon, he was under 40.  When he died, he was over 80.  We treated him to more than 40 years of watching the world fumble around lukewarmly, hemming and hawing about whether or not it would be a good idea to poke our beaks a little farther out of the eggshell we’d just cracked.

It seems, for the time being, that we’d rather just sit around in the shell where it’s safe and familiar.

That’s not the way it should be.  It’s not the way individual humans progress and it’s not the way the human race improves itself.

Take it from someone who has stuck his neck out once or twice and profited.

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