Neil Armstrong, Curiosity And The Challenge Of The Endless Frontier

Aug 26, 2012

It seems like another era. It feels like another age.

It was the DayGlo world of variety TV: Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers. It was billowing smoke of riots on campus and in the ghettos. Looking back at images of beehive hairstyles and hippy bellbottom pants it all seems so clearly like our past, something tinged with the sepia colors of old Polaroids — something we left behind.

But then you remember Neil Armstrong. Then you remember the launches and the orbits and landings. You remember the blue Earth hanging over the moon's grey horizon and it doesn't seem like your looking at the past at all but at some strange and miraculous future we imagined and then, inexplicably, forgot. It looks like us standing as a nation at the edge of the endless frontier. And now, more than four decades later, you might think we've turned away from that frontier and that we lost that future.

Perhaps its time to think again.

Yesterday Neil Armstrong, the greatest visible hero of that "age of space" died at age 82. It's Armstrong's quiet bravery, the calm just-get-it-done skill that allows a person to pilot an out-of-fuel box of plumbing onto the lunar surface, that seems to epitomize the optimism of his era. In spite of everything else that was going on, we knew then, we just knew, that science and technology combined with our own audacity would allow us to do great things. It would even let us do impossible things.

Now, the very nature of our future seems to have changed. As nation we seem so polarized that it's difficult to imagine even getting a new high-speed train built, much less a high-speed rocket. Even more daunting is the sense that the future itself betrayed us. Who in 1969 imagined that that there might be limits and consequences of this technological culture building we've been so busy with the last 100 years.

1969? That was long before terms like climate change and resource depletion would make their way into our everyday vocabularies. Ask most 20 year olds about the future and their dominant response appears to be a darkening uncertainty. So many of our national narratives seem to be about losing our way, of not being up to the monumental challenges we face.

But the societal backdrop of Armstrong's moon landing — the divisions of the Vietnam war, the Cold War and the immediate aftermath of RFK and MLK's assassinations — was at least as tumultuous as the challenges we face today.

And now there's Curiosity — 899 kilograms of science and technology blasted across 154 million miles of interplanetary space to drop down exactly where it was meant land. With its 7 minutes of terror-busting, sky-crane flying, jaw-dropping impossibility, the success of Curiosity reminds us that we have never lost our ability to do audacious things. We have never lost capacity to reach for the impossible and make it real.

Most of all it shows us that when people work together they can solve really, really hard problems. This week I have been reading an article from the journal Nature on the global future of Energy. Written by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steve Chu, (currently the head of the Department of Energy), it surveys the whole landscape of future energy production in light of our need to create a long-term, sustainable vibrant human future.

What impressed me most was the very specific list of scientific and technological challenges each new technology required. New materials science would be needed to yield better batteries just as it would for exploring new direct-gap semiconductors for solar cells. High-performance computing would be needed to explore scalable models for decarbonizing fossil-fuel emissions and for smart electric grid deployment. Each problem had its difficult, detailed sci-tech frontier that needed to be crossed. But that's OK. We are good at that kind of thing once we set our minds to it.

A lot has changed since Neil Armstrong's era and, ironically, it may be to our advantage. Many of the issues we now face come directly from the science and technology we have deployed in the past to create the world we live in now. Clearly there is much to their solution that does not involve science and technology. The social and political dimensions of these great issues will dictate our ability to find solutions just as much as new technologies. But the bookends of our achievements, from Neil Armstrong moon landing to the Curiosity team's Mars landing, show us something true, some vital, something we very much need to remember.

The frontier remains, here on Earth and on the other worlds of our solar system. It is still ours as it was Armstrong's. We still can do great things — in fact, we have no choice.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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