20 July 2009

One Giant Leap for Mankind (and Science!)

Forty years ago today, the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission became the first people to set foot on an extraterrestrial body. It was - and still is - a monumental technological triumph and inspired a generation of scientists and engineers. That inspiration has proven to be, in fact, the most lasting legacy of Apollo 11; sending humans into space instead of unmanned spacecraft is both highly risky and highly expensive (so much so that the recurring discussions about a manned mission to Mars always strike me as lunacy), but no single image has done as much to galvanize public support for science as that of Neil Armstrong taking a giant leap for mankind. This was, of course, by design: John F. Kennedy was one of the smartest presidents we've had, and he knew full well that a moon mission would give Americans a huge morale boost out of what had been a particularly grim period of the Cold War. His plans succeeded spectacularly, and ushered in an era in which it would have been great to be a scientist. It's no exaggeration to say that since the days when Huxley lectured to London workers on a piece of chalk and Marsh and Cope's fossil discoveries were front-page stories in New York newspapers, science has never been as popular as it was immediately following the moon landing. It is in honor of that, then, that I'm writing this post and reminding every scientist out there that they really should like the moon.

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