As quoted in his New York Times obituary, Neil Armstrong once said “I am, and always will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer… And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession”. To Armstrong, “the attractions of being an astronaut were actually, not so much the Moon, but flying in a completely new medium”.
A young Neil Armstrong.
There’s a passage in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World that explains the difference between children, grown-ups and philosophers. To paraphrase, we are born with the infinite capacity for wonder — to be amazed by everything we see; to see everything as a miracle. As infants we are thrilled by everything; the smallest thing surprises us. As we grow older, we become jaded. We learn to accept some things as normal (we just accept that planes fly, for example; that’s just what they do) or we deem it ‘uncool’ to think that something might be marvellous. Most grown-ups could easily become jaded having seen Mount Everest up close, or after travelling through five major cities in as many weeks. “Been there, seen that. I know all there is to know and nothing can impress me now.”
Philosophers (and others who have nurtured their inquisitive nature) spend their lives trying to buff away the frosted glass of adulthood; to view the world through a child’s eyes, always asking questions, awed by nature’s most banal accomplishments.
Earthrise from the surface of the moon, from that great Apollo 11 landing of 1969.
Neil Armstrong was a quintessential human — a fine example of someone whose childlike enthusiasm never dulled with the passing of time, even after he walked on the Moon and had seen, at least in terms of long-distance travel, all there is to see. As his family said of him,
“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits”.
I believe space travel isn’t about claiming new territories for humankind, or finding footholds for off-world colonies in a dystopic future. It’s about recognising — and championing — the undeniably curious nature that makes us human. Yes, space exploration is about Curiosity.
It’s the desire to know more about the things we see from a distance, and to better understand what makes our own planet so special. The inquisitive spark deep inside the human spirit that drives our impulse to read, explore, experiment, create, travel, study, work, meet new people, go to the zoo, cross the North Pole, and watch David Attenborough documentaries.
Layers at the base of Mount Sharp, captured by the Mars Curiosity rover.
The day that space exploration became an optional frivolity — and gradually faded from the global (funding) agenda — was a sad day for human curiosity, creativity and innovation. After all, space exploration isn’t just about flying rockets and walking on the Moon. As documented by NASA:
- The technology behind liquid-cooled spacesuits used for moonwalks is now used to treat those suffering multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries.
- A lightweight breathing apparatus now used by firefighters was the result of a NASA project.
- Robotic arms developed for operating on machinery in space formed the basis of robotic arms now used to operate on humans in delicate surgical situations. (In 1994, doctors used one of these robotic arms to remove a woman’s gallbladder. Gallbladders are much smaller than space stations.)
- The Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge are both coated in a protective material that NASA invented to protect launch pads from hot, humid, salty air.
- Multispectral imaging used to map the surface of Mars was later used to decipher previously hidden text in Roman manuscripts damaged by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
- Space Pen, Space Food Sticks and Astronaut Ice Cream. Because humans are also inextricably delighted by frippery.
But without government funding — or some way to ensure scientific research in private space exploration endeavours — the refrain of “I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up” seems to have vanished like a waning crescent Moon. (When was the last time YOU heard those words pass the lips of a bright-eyed child, filled with wonder at the mysteries of the universe?)
So. Vale the space program, hail curiosity (and Curiosity), and let us hope that Neil Armstrong isn’t the last of a dying breed.
PS. The next time you get overly excited at the world around us — by a beautiful bird flying overhead, or a particularly huge moonrise in a glowing amber twilight, or a ladybug landing on your sleeve, or the beauty of falling snow — and someone tells you to stop being such a child… just ignore them. It’s never uncool to be curious about — and delighted by — the universe.