Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Apollo virtues

Exactly 40 years ago (10:56pm EDT, July 20, 1969), Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon's surface. It was certainly one of the greatest moments of human history. The mission was carried out in a not only technically brilliant but morally inspiring way that seems almost inconceivable in the risk-averse world of today. Once again, I am amazed by the good old 60s - an age when dreams turned into visions, and visions led to accomplishments.

Curiosity. Men had seen the Moon shining in the sky for thousands of years. But only some wondered, "What is it made of?" "What's up there?" "What does it look like up close?" All these questions were brought together into one ambition: "What if we go there?"

Courage. Adventures suggest risks. For some people, those men were almost flying out into the vast darkness to kill themselves. There's nothing scary about the darkness itself. It's the unknown that we fear when we look upon it. But curiosity had conquered the territory of fear and courage turned the unknown into, as Buzz Aldrin described, "magnificent desolation."

Determination. RETRO? Go! FIDO? Go! Guidance? Go! Control? Go! TelCom? Go! GNC? Go! EECOM? Go! Surgeon? Go! CapCom, we're go for landing! It's exciting to hear them calling it out with firm determination. "Yes, let's do it!" Low fuel warnings? Radar data overload? That's all right - we can still do it! As JFK rightly put, "We must be bold."

Confidence. The operation was not completely smooth or flawless. At the moment of landing, Neil Armstrong realized the computer's landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 400 meter diameter crater. He decisively took semi-auto control and drifted forward to another spot. With full confidence, human decision overrode what technology was telling him to do.

Gratitude. No great work can be done by one man. In a TV broadcast before splashdown, Mike Collins said, "All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, 'Thank you very much.'" Unfortunately, it doesn't seem necessary any more for the public face(s) to acknowledge the effort of those who stood behind them...

Clearly enough, all this kind of missions have political intentions (prestige in the Cold War, distraction from Vietnam, etc.). But I would just embrace it as the greatest adventure of all men and women on earth. As Neil Armstrong said himself, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The event united people of all nations, who were all gazing upon the moon with tremendous excitement. Today, 40 years later, we shall unite once again, not only to celebrate this historic moment, but to revive the endangered virtues exemplified by the epic journey.

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