Neil Armstrong’s death this weekend reminds me of the intangible power of human spaceflight. When my wife and I heard the news on Saturday, we decided we wouldn’t mention it our kids, who are 4 and 2, until we opened the newspaper on Sunday. Armstrong and a few other astronauts are the only people famous for an achievement in the 60s that our kids would we even know of. Part of it because we are geeks who read them stories about engineering, but it’s also that there is something fundamentally compelling about people going higher and farther and anyone before. Only a few people alive today have been far enough to see the earth as a sphere. The space shuttle didn't go nearly high enough to see a whole side of the planet.
The children’s book Moonshot by Brian Floca does a great job of conveying how amazing the lunar landing was. In a poetic way that even kids and non-technical adults can understand, it shows Armstrong and Aldrin running out of fuel with multiple false alarms going off trying to find a place to land.
In the latest episode of the Amp Hour podcast, Chris Gammel points out that all the early astronauts were engineers and very formidable geeks. The world could use some powerful icons to draw kids to STEM careers. Robotic missions like Mars Curiosity certainly inspire people, but we should consider carefully the intangible benefits of a human mission. If Mars Curiosity were a human mission the details of it would be widely known to non-engineers 43 years from now like the lunar landing's. There is some intangible benefit, paid out over decades, of human space exploration.
We sometimes think of the lunar landings as a narrative bound to have a happy ending, but landing on the moon was very risky. The president had a speech prepared for the contingency of Armstrong and Aldrin being stranded on the moon. It is hard to imagine the government taking such risk today and having so many qualified engineers eager to volunteer. I'd like to think, though, if we took the chance a new generation of humble engineering heroes would step forward.