News of the death of Neil Armstrong on 25 August 2012 brought back so many vivid memories of the Moon landing – as I’m sure it did to hundreds of millions of people around the world. I remember being woken by my father to watch the grainy television images of Armstrong landing Eagle on the lunar surface, and his subsequent historic step. Although I was young, I knew even then that I was watching something historic. What I didn’t appreciated until later was the incredible coolness under pressure that Armstrong displayed in landing Eagle successfully; what I didn’t appreciate until much, much later was Armstrong’s integrity in refusing to cash in on his status as the world’s most famous person. (It’s said that Armstrong was aloof, reclusive, and unwilling to engage with the public. That’s not the case. My daughter’s primary school, for instance, has a plaque signed by Armstrong. He just decided to use his time in the way that he thought best, that’s all.) Neil Armstrong was a true hero.
A total of 12 astronauts, including Armstrong, have set foot on the Moon. Following Armstrong’s death, only 8 of those 12 astronauts survive. The youngest of the survivors is Charles Duke, and he is 76. Without wishing to be ghoulish, it won’t be many more years before there is no living human being who has set foot on the Moon. The sobering fact is that, since Eugene Cernan shook the Moondust from his boots in December 1972, no human has returned to our sister planet. It is hard to imagine anyone returning to the Moon anytime soon.
Does that matter?
I believe it does. To strive, to seek, to find… I believe those are important qualities for humankind to display. Science can certainly be done by unmanned probes and robots (as we are seeing right now with the wonderful Mars Curiosity rover), but if mankind itself chooses to stay at home on Earth and leave the striving to probes then I believe we are heading for trouble. The rich, developed countries possess an economic system that appears to be little more than a glorified Ponzi scheme; we seem hell-bent on burning up the planet; we aren’t developing new sources of energy at the rate our ever-increasing population requires. Earth is our spaceship and we are without lifeboat – and, unfortunately, it seems our species doesn’t want to build a lifeboat.
In Where Is Everybody? I argued that resolutions of the Fermi paradox that depend on “sociological” explanations – such as supposing that all extraterrestrial civilisations perish in some global catastrophe (nuclear warfare, biological warfare, civilisation-induced climate change … take your pick) – are unconvincing. That’s still the case. Nevertheless, maybe it’s because I’m in a gloomy mood following news of Armstrong’s death, but I do increasingly wonder whether one of those global catastrophes will end humanity’s chance of signalling its presence to the rest of the Universe.