One Giant Leap

August 25th, 2012

Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on a world outside our planet Earth, passed away today.

Let that sink in a little bit. The first human to ever leave Earth and stand on another body. For all of humanity prior to the late nineteenth century, every person that ever lived, that idea would either never have occurred to them or have seemed so absurd, so far behind the possibility for what we can do, it wouldn’t have warranted a moment’s consideration.

And yet.

And yet, in the same century humans finally created sustained, heavier-than-air flight, we sent people beyond our atmosphere and to the Moon. We went from barely being able to leave the ground to setting foot on the Moon 239,000 miles away in less than one hundred years. We went from something being almost beyond our imagination to doing it in that amount of time. Yes, indeed, it was a giant leap for mankind.

When I was a child, reading about what the people of the Apollo program achieved was so incredibly fascinating to me. They were my heroes in the true sense of the word; they worked to do something truly revolutionary, to push the boundaries of human possibilities farther out, to say yes, this is within our capabilities, and it is only the beginning. They did not criticize the work of others or try to tear them down—they only dreamed, dreamed of incredible things, of how they could achieve it, and then they worked to do it, never sitting back and saying that it’s too hard, that if no one else could do it before, why could they? They dreamed, and they made those dreams happen. For a child, there are no better heroes than those people, I think.

It inspired me to learn about our solar system and galaxy. I obsessed over it as a child; I remember bringing with me a book about the Sun, planets and asteroids in our solar system most places I went, and reading it cover to cover, multiple times. I sought out photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and found it so incredibly awe-inspiring that there were other worlds out there beyond ours, so utterly alien to Earth, and that we could see them. I fell in love with space as a child because of the work they had done.

After NASA landed the Mars Pathfinder rover on Mars in 1997, my elementary school teacher spent several class periods on the mission, discussing Mars, what the mission’s goals were, and various little exercises related to it. And, of course, I loved it. I loved the idea that at that very moment, there was a little rover driving around the surface of Mars—Mars!—taking photos and conducting tests. Driving around on another planet, and that we had built it. After learning about the Apollo program, the Viking missions, and Voyager 1 and 2, it made sense that we were exploring Mars’s surface. Of course we were continuing to explore our solar system and push our capabilities. As far as I could tell, that’s what we did. That’s how we worked. We pushed farther, to see more, to learn more.

Those years, I dreamed of what it would be like when we sent a manned mission to Mars. I envisioned the lander, astronauts walking or driving about the surface, conducting tests and making new discoveries. I imagined what it would feel like for those men and women, the first people to set foot on another planet. I imagined following the news reports as they hurdled toward Mars, descended through the Martian atmosphere and landed. I thought about how incredible it would be to see the first photos and video they sent back, from the first manned mission to another planet in our species’ history. I wondered who our generation’s Neil Armstrong would be.

And I never doubted that I would see that day. I thought, in the late 1990s, anything was possible. We had done so much already, we were doing so much then, and it seemed inevitable that that day was coming soon. As I stared up into the sky at night, sometimes through my telescope and sometimes just taking in all of the stars, I knew our future would bring us somewhere beyond our atmosphere.

Today, the day that the first man to place his foot on the ground of another body beyond our own passed away, I’m reminded of what I thought about then as a child. I’m reminded of the pure excitement and faith I had that I would see that day, I would see the day when we push our boundaries further out as those men did on that day in 1969. There was no doubt, just a child’s true excitement about the incredible things that lay ahead.

Today, I am twenty-four years old. Today, I worry that day may never come. What seemed like an inevitability fifteen years ago doesn’t seem quite so inevitable today. We are not much closer to seeing that day now than we were then. That saddens me.

We’ve seen incredible advancements in the last half-century, and whatever the reason, I think we’ve become complacent in our technological wonderland of a world. We’ve become used to the idea that we are a people that sends people to the Moon and explores the solar system and builds computing devices that only science fiction could have predicted years ago. But that is not a distinction passed down—that is a distinction earned by doing the same thing that the people in prior generations did, which is dream of truly incredible things, and work to make them reality. It is earned by pushing that boundary further and further forward.

And that is what we must do. Let’s lay awake at night, dreaming up great things, things that could only be dreams now, and let’s build them. It need not be related to space; it could be related to an important advancement with renewable energy, or even with something as comparably small as re-creating education for this new century. But it must be something truly new, groundbreaking and meaningful, something that leaves you with the sheer joy of childhood excitement. Something that will make us better as a people. Let’s dream it, and let’s build it.

I hope one of those things will be a mission to Mars. I hope to see it one day, but let’s make it one of many great projects. Let’s add many more giant leaps to Neil’s.