Part one of two.

Fifty years ago today, a soft-spoken man from a small town in Ohio became the first human to set foot on the moon.

Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man” fulfilled not only a murdered president’s bold deadline, but also centuries of human longing. Here’s some sobering context: We are now as removed from that exhilarating night of July 20, 1969, as were the people of 1919 and in much the same condition. The people of 1919 could not put a man on the moon, and neither can we now.

Were some Rip Van Winkle from July 1969 to wake up today, he’d marvel over many things in our society. The technological changes might not astonish him; we expect the future to be futuristic. But this would surely blow his mind: We gave up on the moon. On the day that Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon, Vice President Spiro Agnew had declared that we should aim to be on Mars by the turn of the century. Two decades later, we’re not walking across the red sands of Mars. We’re not inhabiting colonies on the moon. We do have astronauts circling in low-earth orbit, but the United States can’t even put them there. We have to rent a ride on a Russian rocket, at $82 million per seat. How did the country that put men on the moon turn into a space-faring hitch-hiker?

While the United States is not back on the moon now, we eventually will be, and we won’t be alone. In April, China announced plans to set up a research station at the moon’s south pole “in about 10 years.” The United States has set 2028 as the date to establish its own moon base. If the Chinese built an inhabited moon base before the United States does, that would fit with history: The French established a colony in Florida a year before the Spanish did. The Spanish also slaughtered all the inhabitants, which is why Florida today is not Quebec. We hope that space exploration will be more peaceful, but human history is not always encouraging on this point.

The U.S. in July 1969 sent men to the moon and brought them back with less computer power than most of us have in our phones. We also did it while tapping the talents of only some of our citizens. There were lots of white men in the NASA control room, but only one woman. Imagine what we could do today with faster computers and a wider talent pool. Some might ask what good the space program accomplished. The answer: The technology we have around us.

The U.S. won the moon race not on the Sea of Tranquility but in Silicon Valley. We got to the moon and the Russians didn’t because we figured out how to miniaturize the electronics. The Russians kept trying to build bigger and bigger rockets and that became impractical. The Apollo program put men on the moon; it also indirectly led to microwaves, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and Fortnite.

To be continued July 24.

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