I GREW up in a world not alien to Earthrise, a photo of the world taken from the moon. That awe-inspiring picture of a serene, blue-and-brown marbled Earth rising from a dusty gray horizon is common for people of my generation. However, it was a tremendous paradigm shift for others who experienced first hand the wonder of hearing “Man on the moon!” on radio.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s been forty years since the first human footprint on the Sea of Tranquility. Forty years since the words “we came in peace for all mankind” was engraved in a plaque at the bottom of a lunar crater, above then U.S. President Richard Nixon’s name. Forty years since America finally won the years-old “space race” against the Soviet Union, who was the first to send people in orbit. Prior to that, American physicists at first just watched in envy as one Russian cosmonaut after the other circled the Earth. Then came Armstrong and his crew. It was a victorious moment for an entire generation, a cause of celebration across America and even around the world. It even prompted CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite to say that everything after the landing is going to be less significant. Decades later, this is hardly the case.

During the celebrations for the Apollo-11 anniversary this year, three of its crewmembers—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin—urged their fellowmen to come up with an encore to the landing.

“It [allowed the USA and the USSR] to take the high road, with the objectives of science, learning and exploration,” Armstrong said of the two rival powers trying to outdo one another. Eventually, the rivalry became the foundation of good relations between the two countries.

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Aldrin went straight for the heart: “America, do you still dream a great dream?” He asked in the same forum. “Do you still believe in yourself?” America might still believe, but with the strain of the global financial crisis, coupled with the ambitious new NASA project costing around billions, the future looks bleak for further space travel.

This presents a problem for fans of space-age science. In an era dominated by the Internet, it is a challenge to sustain the youth’s interest in space travel. West Virginia senator John Rockefeller IV stated it succinctly when he said that NASA is a “splendid story of the past.” Recent forays of the United States into space travel like the “Skylab” and the “International Space Station” were not explorations; rather, they were simply meant to keep the space agency alive.

The latest in space travel is the “Constellation Project,” which aims to send humans back to the moon by 2020, followed by a Martian landing. It is a pretty picture to revive NASA’s glory days, but at what price? A modest estimate would peg it at $150 billion.

Not surprisingly, this caught the attention of US president Barack Obama, who ordered a review of the project, with recommendations due late August. Also, despite a $6-billion space budget for 2009, the agency cannot produce the money needed for the Orion capsule, an upgrade of the Apollo lunar module. “NASA simply can’t do the job it’s been given,” said former astronaut Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Yet beyond the budget deficits and the skepticism, a simpler problem persists. In the age of technology, what awe does a trip to the moon still hold? To an extent, science fiction is responsible for the demystification of traversing through the moon’s surface. “To boldly go where no man has ever gone before” is so choked with promise that people want to believe in it. Today’s technology is decades away from producing a spacecraft that can land on another planet, and no one knows for sure when first contact with alien species will be, a far cry from the constant human-alien interaction we often see on shows like Star Trek.

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The bitter truth is that a new landing is not entirely feasible at the moment, and another exploration of the moon simply doesn’t hold the romance it once promised. Perhaps, before thinking of another trip to the stars, the earth might do better to fix itself first.


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