Put Whitey Back on the Moon

Opinion piece first appeared in Jacobin on 24 September, 2012. 

The death of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has unleashed wistful, “Where is my jetpack?” lamentation in some parts of the press, shocked into a realization that it’s been over 40 years since one of the greatest achievements of mankind – a bold feat of engineering in the service of irrepressible human curiosity and wanderlust. There’s been little advance out into the solar system since.

Martin Robbins in the Guardian issued a brilliant polemic attacking our abandonment of space, reminding us: “Nobody born since 1935 has stepped on another world,” and, sadder still: “The first man on the Moon will never meet the first man on Mars.”

Similar regret can found in the words of the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, on the passing of his friend: “I had truly hoped that on July 20th, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing, as we also anticipated the continued expansion of humanity into space, that our small mission helped make possible. Regrettably, this is not to be.”

But that’s all it is: lament. Nobody is asking why it is that the high point of manned spaceflight was reached at the end of the sixties, wondering whether there might be a reason for this drop in ambition, this retreat from humanity’s destiny in space. It’s not as if the planet has abandoned its love of space. The international excitement over the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory hints at a yearning to be thrilled about the possibility of life on other planets.

At the same time, a kind of left-wing cynicism about  space exploration has bubbled up. Wasn’t this simply a distraction from the crisis? How can we be spending money on space while the Earth burns? How can we care about the improbable chance that we find possible evidence of the conditions for microbes having aeons ago existed on Mars when thousands of Americans are losing their homes to repossession, when half of all Spanish youth are without work?

To read the rest of the article, visit the Jacobin website.

Slate commentator Matt Yglesias responded to the piece in a post “The economic case for space exploration and the weird political economy of the Cold War“, as did UK author Richard Seymour, in a piece in the Guardian: “Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalism“.

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