I have always been sad that I never got to see the beginning of humanity's ultimate journey, and even sadder to realise that in 1972 we abandoned a path that could have possibly gotten us to Mars and other planets by now. Today, we opened the gate to that path again. We should rejoice — we are going back to the stars.
In the 1960s, we dipped our toes in the sea of space. It was exciting. It lead to countless discoveries and technologies that made possible the world we have today. We dipped our toes in the waters of the cosmos but then we ran back to the shacks of that comfy beach we call Earth, scared.
1972 marked humanity's last mission to the Moon and with it, all the optimism of the space era died. But on the brink of nuclear annihilation, with the war in Vietnam raging on, our journey to the Moon saved the world's collective mind. As television reporter David Brinkley said during Apollo 8's live Christmas Eve television special, broadcasted from the orbit of the Moon:
The human race, without many victories lately, had one today. Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.
Apollo 8 also brought us this photo. It had huge repercussions in humanity's common psyche, starting the environmental movement and the idea that we should collectively work to establish peace on Earth. After this photo — and the Blue Marble — humans realised, at last, that we needed to work together. Slowly, things began to change.
They didn't change fast enough. We are still working on that. And thanks to miserable politics and our inability to deal with long term plans, we abandoned the natural path that the 1960s space program opened.
For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game — none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band's, or even your species' might be owed to a restless few — drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.
Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas..."
Maybe it's a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds — promising untold opportunities — beckon.
Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.
Twenty years after those words, it feels like the time has come.
We sent an amazing rover to Mars in a seemingly impossible mission that had the entire world watching with baited breath. A few weeks ago, we landed on a comet. This week, we sent another spaceship to return material from an asteroid. Today we launched the spaceship that will take humans back to the Moon, asteroids, Phobos, and Mars.
So yes, I look at Orion rising against the deep blue, I hear the cheers coming out of my mouth and countless others, I see the millions of people watching this apparently insignificant event — just a spacecraft that is empty going up and splashing on the Atlantic Ocean — and it feels like the '60s all over again.
The path is open again, a sunbeam illuminating its gates, now clean of the vines that had grown through all these years of abandonment.
Today is the day. Today we are starting to get back to the stars. And this time there's no way back.