Monday, July 20, 2009

The small step on the edge of forever

It's been forty years since the first time human steps left footprints on another world. The window of human space exploration opened and closed with the Apollo missions. There's much talking now of returning to the Moon, of missions to Mars, but what used to be the visionary future of mankind tastes nowadays more like 1960s nostalgia, another lamppost along the boulevard of broken dreams.

In a flurry of celebrations of the moon landing anniversary, the journal Nature reports how a survey among scientists whom they have recently published reveals a large number of them was motivated to a scientific career by the space race and the moon landing. So is that sufficient a reason for a revamped manned space program? Will it produce a similar effect among the youth of today? Was the Cold War a needed prerequisite to make the space race exciting? Was it a prerequisite to make science a priority in our societies, both east and west of the Iron Curtain? Or was the race to the moon, that "ultimate peaceful competition" the much needed "diversion that prevented the war", as Armstrong suggested in his anniversary speech?

It's one of those rare occasions when one can see Neil Armstrong himself back in from the cold, breaking his usual silence to speak on the 40th anniversary of his first steps on the moon. We're all used to his looks of 1969: it's hard to readjust one's perception to the 79 years old who's speaking today. He was born three months after my father and he was walking on the moon nearly half a century ago.

I think this anniversary can give us the occasion for a much needed reflection on the crucial but delicate and fragile interdependence of science and dreams. The main contribution of the moon landing to science was not the scientific value of the Apollo 11 mission itself (the first and only Apollo mission that had a scientist on board was also the last before the whole program was canceled) but its effect in boosting our capacity to dream. Science feeds upon our dreams, which give us the courage to embrace a vision of the future that is as thin as blurred shapes in the mist, and yet sufficiently motivating to support the enormous effort that is needed to move forward, to accomplish results, one hesitant step at a time. All of science is a small step for man, and only the accumulated effort of this collective enterprise over time can become a giant leap for mankind, the amazing enterprise that brought a species of apes to walk on the moon. In the iconic sequence of Kubrick's 2001, the primitive bone tool becoming an orbiting space station is a beautifully condensed and unforgettable homage to the transformational power of science.

Science needs dreams, but the capacity to dream is fragile. Reality is harsh and makes us too easily cynical and disillusioned, too easily wounded. What the space race did was to nurture the dreams of a generation of scientists, to protect them from the devastating effect of disappointment, of a direct confrontation with the sad reality of the world. Science could appear at its best: "the ultimate peaceful confrontation" between the rival superpowers, with the large collaboration of scientists and engineers that made it possible. All the less pleasant sides of reality were carefully hidden away from view, starting from those Apollo astronauts that went bananas and started talking to God on the surface of the moon and ending with the much more serious military overtones of the space race. Science was showing its best face, the one of collaboration, of beautiful dreams about the future of mankind. In reality beautiful dreams often turn into nightmares before the lights of dawn disperse them, and yet you will have a new generation of scientists only if you allow them the possibility to dream, with a naive trust in the good nature of mankind and a genuine desire to share ideas, thoughts and energy for a common goal. The moon race was about creating an illusion, but one that was likely the most beneficial contributions to science in the decades that followed.