What Apollo 11 says about our future

The run-up to the Apollo 11 50th anniversary has begun, and that has me thinking about the passage of time and the power of culture to shape our future.

Looked at one way, humanity needed just eight years to reach the moon, measured from President John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961. But looked at another way, humanity needed 200,000 years, taking as a starting point the evolution of a brain about the size of ours.

What explains the sudden surge of science and engineering breakthroughs capped by the moon landing?

In a word: culture. Societies from Asia to Europe and North America grew to value science, technology and facts. In the U.S., we married our love of learning with a determination to protect and spread freedom and market economics. We welcomed immigrants including a former Nazi rocket scientist named Wernher von Braun. As imperfect as we were, someone at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia had the moxie to let a group of African-American women perform their trajectory math.

This was how we met JFK’s challenge and how we went on to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

The Apollo 11 anniversary will be fun, and I feel blessed to be here to enjoy it. Hopefully the anniversary also will lead to self-reflection in the U.S. about whether we still have the right stuff to do the things we want to do, or that we might need to do. We’re living on what is essentially a giant but delicate spacecraft, and we’re going to have to do our part to treat it better. We want to out-compete China and Russia; get back to the moon and onto Mars; find out if we are alone in the universe; fly supersonically, and bop around like the Jetsons.

We want to do those things soon, and in some cases, we might have no choice. Can we still work fast? I’m not sure. NASA and the industry achieved the moon landing in fewer years than it took to build and launch the unmanned Parker Solar Probe that’s now headed toward the sun. That’s not to blame the Parker managers. Something similar could be said of just about any government-led space or aviation program. As Jeff Babione of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works notes in this month’s Q and A, today’s government acquisition processes are not what they were when Clarence “Kelly” Johnson founded Skunk Works. I’m not sure the private sector is immune either.

If we want to do these amazing things, we’ll need faster acquisition; we’ll need the best minds; we’ll need international coalitions and alliances. It’s the culture we choose that will determine the way ahead. The question is whether we will choose wisely.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

What Apollo 11 says about our future