NASA Is Cooler Than Ryan Gosling
Hollywood’s latest space film, “First Man,” stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in an intense battle between earthly priorities and the sublime possibilities of the Apollo mission, much like his nation. Naturally, its most glorious scene is the moon landing: the moment he takes that final, hesitant leap and we see his white boot press into the fine lunar soil before we gently pan over Earth, suspended in the vast blackness of space.
As majestic cinematography brings the feat back to life, frame by frame, a sense of nostalgia is almost unavoidable, even for viewers who weren’t on Earth when it happened. We tend to collectively look back at that moment, that era, as the height of success not only for NASA but for all of humanity. That was when we did great things. That was when we took risks. That is when America was at its boldest and best. But that’s not entirely true.
The romance associated with the Apollo program, and Apollo 11 in particular, is warranted. For one evening in July 1969 everyone paused and watched a human leave the confines of a ship and set foot on not a distant shore but an alien world. Line cooks flicked off their stoves and turned on the radio, families and friends gathered in front of TVs, and the faint sounds of Mr. Armstrong’s disembodied voice danced through the corridors of buildings around the world.
Going back to the moon or landing humans on Mars, some think, is the only way to surpass that pinnacle. However, there is so much more to the success of the space program than having boots on extraterrestrial ground.
Since the last astronaut left lunar soil in 1972, NASA has conducted 161 human space missions and launched 76 successful robotic missions all over the solar system, from Mars to Saturn’s watery moons.
Since their launch in 1977, the twin Voyager spacecraft have been on a historic reconnaissance mission, traveling to every planet in the outer solar system, conducting experiments, then sending back images and data crucial to harnessing our understanding of the very nature of the cosmos.
In 1979, Voyager 1 found evidence of an ocean beneath Jupiter’s moon Europa that scientists think could contain life. Even now, despite whizzing 13.4 billion miles away at 38,000 mph in interstellar space, the probe is still transferring data to Earth.
When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, we had never detected an exoplanet, black holes and aliens were an outlandish idea, oceans and volcanoes on other worlds were the stuff of science fiction, and we had never sent a spacecraft beyond Mars. Quiet progress can still be tremendous.
There are entire generations of active scientists, astronomers, physicists and engineers who trace their motivation for joining their field to either witnessing the Apollo moon landings or the Voyager flybys in the 1970s and ’80s. And most of our basic knowledge of how climate works, how planets form, how stars are born and how long they have to live (including our sun) are the result of examination by NASA programs.
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