This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
You don’t succeed as an engineer or survive as a test pilot without being an intensely practical person. Yet the practical Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered for leading one of humanity’s most impractical adventures.
America had no pragmatic reason to go the moon in the 1960s. While the Apollo program spun off many inventions, the moon voyages were not about developing freeze-dried food or cordless tools. They were mainly about sending human beings up to the nearest heavenly body to have a look around.
Curiosity, pure and simple. It seems appropriate that when Armstrong died Saturday, the Martian rover Curiosity – NASA’s latest impractical adventure – had just begun exploring the bleak landscape of Mars.
In 1969, when Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander, robots weren’t supposed to be the stars of the U.S. space program. Decades of science fiction had conditioned the world to expect humans to play the lead role in exploring Mars and deep space.
But after six trips to the moon, the United States lost interest and didn’t go back. That was 40 years ago; since then, our astronauts have been tooling around in near-Earth orbit.
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