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The Urge to Explore PUBLIC ACCESS

It Brought the First Creatures from the Sea Onto the Land; It Sent Us to the Moon. Where Shall We Go Next?

[+] Author Notes

Buzz Aldrin (who officially changed his name from Edwin Eugene) walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission and remains an advocate of space exploration. This article is based on an address that Aldrin delivered at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., in June, one month before the 35th anniversary of the first moon walk. Wyn Wachhorst, a writer in Atherton, Calif., who has written speeches for Aldrin, is the author of Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity (Basic Books, 2000), from which much of this material was taken.

Mechanical Engineering 126(11), 37-38 (Nov 01, 2004) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2004-NOV-2

Abstract

This article highlights that life, which crawled out of the sea eons ago, would now climb out of the white cloud-capped ocean of air, cling to a barren lunar rock, and then fall back to Earth. For one brief moment, we would be creatures of the cosmic ocean. The moon landing will be seen, a thousand years hence, as the signature of our century. It stands with the cathedrals and pyramids among those epic social feats that embody the spirit of an age. They are the dreams of the child in man. With all great leaps, there is something gained and something lost. The price of the telephone was a loss of privacy; the airplane diminished the sense of travel. Beyond all the political and economic rationales, spaceflight is a spiritual quest in the broadest sense, one promising a revitalization of humanity and a rebirth of hope no less profound than the great opening out of mind and spirit at the dawn of the modern age. Thus it is humans, not machines, who must finally go into space, to wander far worlds and meet once more the dread unknowns, the dry-mouthed fears of the old explorers.

Article

Poised on the launch pad and towering 36 stories against the stars, the Apollo-Saturn rocket seemed unearthly in the wash of floodlight, glowing icy silver-white, like the moon above it. A half-million pilgrims had made their way to the mosquitoed marshlands of Florida’s Merritt Island, spending the night on the beach in cars, tents, and trailers, awaiting the early-morning launch of Apollo 11, the mission that would put men on the moon. Along the grassy dunes and desolate moors, onlookers stood in the soft whine of the night wind, the children of this planet. Life, which crawled out of the sea eons ago, would now climb out of the white cloud-capped ocean of air, cling to a barren lunar rock, and then fall back to Earth. For one brief moment, we would be creatures of the cosmic ocean.

Sixty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, an aircraft carrier set on end, the 3,800-ton Apollo-Saturn rocket was loaded with fuel to fill 96 railroad tank cars. With its 15 million individual parts, 92 engines, and 15 miles of wiring, it was more finely tooled than an exquisite Swiss watch. Gulping 15 tons of fuel a second, cooled by water cascading at 50,000 gallons a minute, the Saturn V rocket rose with the force of a 100,000 locomotives burning five million pounds of fuel in the first 2fi minutes, getting an average of a full five inches to the gallon.

Apollo 17, the last of the moon flights, rode a pillar of fire that turned the night sky orange-pink, a false dawn visible for 500 miles.

Twelve astronauts spent 160 man-hours on the moon, traversing 60 miles afoot and by rover. Sixty scientific experiments were performed on the surface and 30 more in orbit, while 30,000 photographs captured the moon in intimate detail.

The moon landing will be seen, a thousand years hence, as the signature of our century. It stands with the cathedrals and pyramids among those epic social feats that embody the spirit of an age. They are the dreams of the child in man.

With all great leaps, there is something gained and something lost. The price of the telephone was a loss of privacy; the airplane diminished the sense of travel. The moon of Apollo is a barren, hostile desert, a scarred wasteland, glinting gunmetal gray in the sun. Gone is the mysterious, inaccessible moon that made the water silver, the moon that rhymed with June, croon, and spoon. Yet the lunar landscape has a stark beauty all its own, a changeless wilderness where rolling, sunny slopes gleam like virgin snow and thousand-foot gorges border majestic, three-mile-high mountains—lifeless, windless, looming still and serene, only the harsh shadows moving ever so slowly with the sun.

The moon, now branded with boot prints, dissected in laboratories, and littered with NASA’s debris, was brought down to Earth, while the Earth was placed in the heavens. “That bright loveliness in the eternal cold,” floating like a space flower above the horizon of the dead moon, was the only meaningful object in the lunar sky. From the Sea of Tranquility, where I could cover with a thumb the site of all human history, the Earth seemed fragile as a Christmas ornament, drifting like a lost balloon on the black velvet of space.

It is at its frontiers that a species experiences the most perturbing stress. The urge to explore has been the primary force in evolution since the first water creatures began to reconnoiter the land.

The quest for the larger reality, the need to see the whole—from the mountaintop or the moon—is the basic imperative of consciousness, the hallmark of our species. If we insist that the human quest await the healing of every sore on the body politic, we condemn ourselves to stagnation. Living systems cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire. The inner experience of this drive is curiosity and awe—the sense of wonder. Exploration, evolution, and self-transcendence are only different perspectives on the same process.

In the end, space exploration is not about limited political, commercial, and scientific goals, but is rather an epochal turning point in human evolution, one that will ultimately merge our inner and outer realities, elevating both to a new plane in the process. Whole species evolve by probing their environment in the same spirit of play with which the developing child explores his immediate surroundings.

Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Sigmund Freud and Edwin Hubble shared the same moment in history, Freud exposing the rational mind as a tiny clearing in the dark forest of the soul, Hubble revealing that our galaxy is only one among billions, that the heavens are immense beyond imagination. To gaze into the night sky and feel the vastness and passion of creation is to glimpse an equally vast interior. We are aware of the stars only because we have evolved a corresponding inner space.

While most of us have a cerebral grasp of the Copernican model and the immensity of the cosmos, few of us seem yet to feel it. We retain a geocentric spirit, mired down in self-absorbed consumerism. The exploration of outer space will encourage a commensurate expansion of inner space. We are alive at the dawn of a new Renaissance, a moment much like the morning of the modern age when most of the globe lay deep in mystery, when tall masts pierced the skies of burgeoning ports, luring those of imagination to seek their own destiny, to challenge the very foundations of man and nature, heaven and earth.

Like the sailing ships that incarnated the aura of the Renaissance, or the great steam locomotives that embodied the building of America, the Apollo rocket is an emblem of the human spirit. Apollo was inevitable from the first gleam in the eye of the hunter-gatherer, from the first fire, wheel, and furrow; it was latent in the stirrup and the longship, in the creak of every caravel, the ring of every railroad spike, the lonesome howl of every lumber camp harmonica. From the moment the first flint was flaked, space was fated to be the final canvas for expressing in bold strokes the inexhaustible soul of humanity.

Beyond all the political and economic rationales, spaceflight is a spiritual quest in the broadest sense, one promising a revitalization of humanity and a rebirth of hope no less profound than the great opening out of mind and spirit at the dawn of the modern age. Thus it is humans, not machines, who must finally go into space, to wander far worlds and meet once more the dread unknowns, the drymouthed fears of the old explorers. This was the promise of Apollo, that people from Earth would one day flow into the ancient river valleys of Mars, down the gorges three miles deep, out over desolate, wind-torn plains, out to the ice seas of Europa, and the yellow skies of Titan, out into the ocean of light, to those worlds within worlds where the star-children wait.

First and last: Apollo 11 saw Buzz Aldrin (below) climbing onto the lunar surface, while Neil Armstrong held the camera. Apollo 17 (above) created a false dawn that was visible for 500 miles.

Grahic Jump LocationFirst and last: Apollo 11 saw Buzz Aldrin (below) climbing onto the lunar surface, while Neil Armstrong held the camera. Apollo 17 (above) created a false dawn that was visible for 500 miles.

Copyright © 2004 by ASME
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