When John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo manned moon landing project, some thought it was impossible. Others thought it was a waste of money. But still it happened. Hundreds of thousands of people worked for the next decade to achieve the goal, stretching science and engineering to incredible new heights, and the achievement inspired generations of children to become scientists and continue the exploration of our universe. All this from strong, inspirational, visionary leadership.
When Barack Obama cancelled funding for the nine-year-old Constellation programme to continue human exploration of space, he pronounced it “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”. He didn’t replace it with anything, let alone something inspirational. The project was born in the George W. Bush era, which speaks volumes. Instead of a clear, singular, ambitious goal from a strong leader, the programme seemed broad and woolly, and didn’t really make much of an impact with the press or public. Now the only hope for humanity’s further exploration of space seems to rest with India and China.
I was born at the end of the 1960s, and grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. I was brought into a world which had just achieved something incredible, and was looking forward to even more. As a child I loved Arthurian legend, where great things were achieved against all odds by heroic figures who were pure of heart and driven by a single-minded mission. I learned from Mister Benn about helping and being nice to people and improving one’s world through one’s actions. I watched Tomorrow’s World present new and wonderful innovations which would change all our lives for the better. I grew up watching Star Trek, in which mankind’s future had consigned war to the history books and was going to be dedicated to exploration and learning and discovery. I remember the Apollo 11 moon landing only as something people were still talking about a few years after it happened – which in turn shows just what an impression it had made on the public. I watched with excitement the development of the Space Shuttle, its atmospheric tests on the back of a 747, and its first orbital test flight in 1981. I watched as the International Space Station was built, to the yawns and boredom of the public. I watched as politicians increasingly became bogged down in the mire of their own self-interested, corrupt, short-termist dogma, and devoid of vision or grand designs. I watched as everything became less great, less inspiring and less impressive than my childhood aspirations. I watched the world become devoid of greatness. I am one of the generation of the disappointed. This is not the future we were promised.
So perhaps all that’s left to us, the grown-up children of a once inquisitive, innovative and aspirational world, is the robotic, astronomical and theoretical exploration of the universe. Even great projects such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – have been dogged by public cynicism, scepticism and complaints of wasted money as well as the occasional technical problem and, ultimately, nothing yet that can be held up to the public as useful results.
Of course the Apollo Programme wasn’t the first great thing humanity ever did. Unfortunately it may have been the last. Everything else we’ve done for the last forty years is either market-led evolution in communication, like mobile phones and the Internet, or sticking plasters over self-inflicted wounds, like action on third-world debt or banning of landmines. We give Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he’s ever contributed one iota towards world peace, while wars continue to rage in many places around the world. We read newspapers which love to tell us how we fail, as a society, to do anything to rectify the things we moan about. We hope for greatness instead of aspiring to it and actively pursuing it.
What I’d really like Barack Obama to do (or someone else with vision, determination and inspirational leadership) is set America and the world on a new path toward something genuinely great. Something that some say is impossible. Something that coordinates the efforts of many hundreds of thousands of people in many countries to achieve incredible things. Something that inspires future generations. Something like “We choose to solve the problem of world poverty in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. Or climate change & sustainable energy – that must be solvable with the right leadership & vision. And there’s the problem.
Even if I live for another fifty years, I’m guessing that the overwhelming emotion I’ll be feeling on my death bed will be disappointment.