I went to hear Buzz Aldrin talk at a book signing last night. Make no mistake about it, he and the whole Apollo 11 crew are still genuine heroes, yet the event did little to relieve the nagging concern that there may be better ways to invest in our future than space exploration.
Meeting Mr. Aldrin was an honor I never imagined I'd have. I grew up in a small town on the west coast of Ireland. I was at the rear end of a family of 11 and we weren't exactly well off. I still see my father on his bike going from job to job with his tool bag on the back, or wheeling planks through crowds on the sidewalk. As my older brother often recalls, "We didn't have a pot to pee in, nor a window to throw it out of."
Later, things got better and he got a car. Also, the older ones moved out so the pantry shelves weren't always empty.
During those 'early' years I spent a lot of time in the town library, reading science fiction and looking at encyclopedias. Space and its exploration were strong among many themes in my reading and I, like many, always stopped dead at this picture (and still do):
Buzz Aldrin amidst the "magnificent desolation".
There's just something about it: the desolation, the anonymity of the face mask reflecting the achievement of the Eagle's landing, the emptiness of space behind him, the sheer defying impossibility of where he was standing for the first time and fulfilling the dream of billions that have come before him down through the ages.
So, last night, while in the throes of autographing his new book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon, he took a second to look up at who he was signing for and was taken aback to find our two kids smiling shyly at him. My young fella has bright red hair so that that naturally caught his eye and he asked spontaneously with a big smile, "Hey Red, how ya doin'." Well, I don't know who was grinning more: me or my wee fella. The second man to step on the moon called out to my son: how cool is that!
Aldrin signing for my son (he's the red 'patch' in the corner).
It's that sense of awe for real heroes like Aldrin, Armstrong, and all the others before and after, that makes this next question particularly difficult: It's been 40 years: Is it still worth it?
Heresy, I know, especially before an engineering audience, but help me out here: Putting the achievement itself aside, is there anything that's really come from space exploration that's really helped us in a practical sense? Getting 'out there' has forced us to push the limits of materials science and engineering, for sure. But what's the upside to future exploration? How will it advance the human condition? I know there are answers, but do they justify the expense and effort when there are so many other projects afoot where achieving the objectives clearly has long-lasting implications ?
So, here's my question to you: if you had $100 billion, and you had to advance the human condition, would you spend it on:
1: Decoding the human genome
2: Researching and mapping the inner workings of the brain (conscious, subconscious)
3: Nuclear fusion
4: Going to Mars (which Mr. Aldrin is working on)
If none of these appeal to you, what do you think would be the best way to spend $100 billion? Let me know. I'll add one or two more to the list, if need be, but these come to mind right now. I can be reached at email@example.com. Or on Twitter as Borg99.
In the meantime, I'm going to take another look at that photo above. Have a great weekend!