(July 20, 2019)
Space — the final frontier.
I grew up with that idea. I remember watching the original Star Trek on television, reading the books and fuming at how badly the early movies were scripted.
Somewhere in the house, I still have my membership card from Colonel Loonar’s Space Club, from the Calgary television show I always watched before I was old enough for school.
And I remember watching, on July 20, 1969, the poor-quality black-and-white broadcast from the moon with my family, hunched over the screen with the intensity of a 10-year-old obsessed with everything space and riveted on what we all were seeing for the first time.
I also remember my frustration when someone complained about the blurry picture just as Neil Armstrong uttered his immortal — but, for me, inaudible — words.
For me, growing up, failure was not an option when it came to space exploration. U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 public promise to land someone on the moon within a decade was the mere start of a glorious trajectory outward from Earth to the universe that awaited. The heroes of NASA were the ancestors of Starfleet, and because of them, we all would live long and prosper.
Fifty years later, the old images are all being reproduced, looking much better than they did the first time. I now can hear Neil Armstrong’s words, though that burst of static (and his faulty memory) leave debate still about whether it was “one small step for man” or “one small step for a man” as he planted the first human feet on the moon.
Yet there was a dark side to the lunar adventure, just as there is now. That same year, my classroom partner Bruce and I won first prize in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division science fair. Our project (accompanied by my crude, multicoloured drawings) enthusiastically demonstrated the lethal effects of a nuclear bomb hitting Winnipeg at Portage and Main.
I recall waxing eloquent for the judges about how the effects of an atomic weapon would destroy pretty much everything. To justify these gruesome descriptions, I claimed they would help the few unfortunate survivors among us to realize what the radioactive aftermath would be like.
At 10 years of age, I had already concluded that I would not be one who survived an atomic detonation. Winnipeg would be incinerated by Soviet missiles, either intentionally, because it’s a major transportation hub, or incidentally, as the missiles were exploded en route to the silos in North Dakota.
I remember playing in the first new house my parents had built in Calgary, hiding in the bomb shelter they built to get the tax credit the government offered.
Years later, watching a movie about American civil defence propaganda, I was suddenly reminded of how it felt when the air-raid sirens went off on North Hill, and how (in Grade 1) we had to take cover under our school desks as part of the air-raid drill.
For all the excitement of lunar anything back then, there was also a palpable, underlying anxiety of how close we were to the end of planetary everything, because of the imminent threat of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in collective memory, and war in Vietnam brought back memories for the adults of how close things had come to a nuclear exchange during the Korean War.
So when the first pictures of Earth from space were sent back by Apollo 8, of that little blue dot that was home, they were seared into my imagination as a sign of hope.
Fifty years later, that dot is not so blue any more. The worst threat to our common home is still nuclear, but we have also learned that any major war (or any minor use of nuclear weapons) will accelerate the equally lethal effects of planetary climate change.
Space is not really “the final frontier.” The challenge for our generation is not somewhere “out there.”
It is right here, inside our hearts and within our communities.
The mission to Mars does not excite as many young people today as the moon mission excited my friends and I. Even the International Space Station is becoming a tourist destination for rich people, instead of the inspiration for humanity’s next step.
But we can’t reach for the stars if we continue to foul our own nests and make the Earth, our home, into a place no one human can live.
The moon mission was impossible, yet people found a way to do it, together.
Our current mission is impossible, too, and not easily identified by looking up into the sky on a clear Prairie night.
We need to live together peacefully and sustainably, to build climate resilience into our communities and to realize that — in the midst of our struggle — we are not alone. Not on Earth, anyway.