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Rekindling The Optimism Of The Moon Landings

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July 20, 1969, was one of those very rare "can't go back" moments for humankind. Anyone alive and able to remember is probably keenly aware of where they were and what they were doing when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

It was a hearth moment for the nation - indeed, the globe. The United States was bogged down in Vietnam, but Americans were given a moment to unabashedly look to the stars and dream, and be proud, as two of their best and brightest left footprints in the Sea of Tranquility.

That time seems forgotten.

If you doubt that, name a single current astronaut.

Or remember when George W. Bush said the U.S. should send explorers to Mars? The challenge was attacked, as so many ideas are in this town, as a craven political ploy to take attention away from other problems.

There is good reason for the distraction. Recession, joblessness, wars and a new millennium slashed by terrorism tend to crowd out the more optimistic sides of human nature that exploration captures. Indeed, some might say another anniversary - former President Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech of 30 years ago - seems more appropriate today.

"Right now, any scientific or space achievement that seems to take place, even though some very important discoveries are being made, they tend to be relegated to the back pages of the paper," said Ron Dilulio, director of astronomy programs at the University of North Texas and a "solar systems ambassador" for NASA.

The space program of the '60s helped create many of today's creature comforts: dried foods, microwave technology, solar batteries, scratch-resistant glass, cordless power tools, smoke detectors, and much more.

But an irony of the computer-based information and technological revolution the lunar program helped launch is that it also helped create the concept of the personal universe. That is, this me-centered, world-at-the-fingertips ethos that helped shift exploration from the heavens to the self. Exploring today is Googling. The American public's enthusiasm about science and space has waned, not expanded, in the 40 years since the moon landing.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently found that 27 percent of Americans view scientific advances as one of the country's most important achievements, down a significant 20 percentage points in just a decade. The number citing space exploration as the country's top achievement in the 20th Century fell from 18 percent in 1999 to 12 percent currently.

In a separate survey of scientists, Pew found that 85 percent now view the public's lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and three in four scientists said the news media's inability to separate significant scientific achievements from the mundane is one reason the public seems so misinformed.

Dilulio, one of about 100 NASA "ambassadors" who extol the virtues of exploration for NASA, is passionate about the need to press on. He said the first moon landings were "strictly hit-and-run kind of things, just go there and land and pick something up and leave." Future exploration, he said, is necessary to perpetuate life.

"We need to figure out ways to extend our lives and extend the life of a mission and extend humans so they can survive," he said, "because at some point we may need to look at expanding our horizons outside the planet Earth."

Yet Dilulio, citing budgetary and legal challenges as well as scientific ones, doesn't expect the U.S. to be back on the moon for another 40 years.

"We have to redesign not only the launch vehicle," he said, but build "long-term sustainability devices" to prove humans can live on another planet outside Earth.

"Things that will generate water, for instance," he said. "And then we have philosophical problems to deal with. Who owns the land? Who has the mineral rights to the moon? ... That is the next thing we have to deal with."

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