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Is It Time to Play With Spaceships Again?



The big movie that year was “Midnight Cowboy,” a gritty, X-rated portrait of hustlers in Times Square, which went on to win an Oscar. Woodstock — three days of peace, love and music in the mud in upstate New York — was followed a few months later by the Altamont festival in California, where a man was killed on camera while the Rolling Stones sang “Under My Thumb.”

That fall, the Beatles quietly began to break up.

On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral in Florida with a mule team and a delegation of the poor, singing “We Shall Overcome.” He urged NASA’s administrator, Thomas Paine, to cancel the launch and spend the money “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and house the homeless.”

Two weeks later, when Apollo 11 returned, President Richard M. Nixon, who succeeded Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, called the mission “the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” But the Apollo program was already under political and budgetary pressure. The last three missions were canceled in 1970. The last flight, Apollo 17, in December 1972, was the only one to put a scientist, geologist and future senator — Harrison Schmitt — on the moon.

So much for science, or cosmic destiny. By then technology, or at least our worship of it, was becoming suspect. The moon shared the headlines with Vietnam. The same prowess that put men in space was also killing people in Southeast Asia and contributing to the despoiling of nature. Some people feared that governments and corporations, armed with computers, were turning them into an army of numbers.

“I am a UC student: Please don’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilate me,read the sign on a shirt during the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the instructions on the punch cards used in computers at the time.

So dawned the Age of Aquarius.

Having beaten the Russians, we left the moon as awkwardly and cynically as we had embraced it a decade earlier. No goodbyes. No infrastructure, like bases or orbiting stations. Nothing to provide an easy way back. We ghosted it.

Science continued. In the years since, uncrewed probes have visited every planet in the solar system; robots have invaded Mars; space telescopes like Kepler and Hubble have revolutionized astronomy. And subsequent lunar probes have discovered water, in the form of ice, on the moon — stuff one could drink, perhaps, or break down to make rocket fuel.

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