Today, at about 2:45pm local time, the first of our species to walk on another world died. There have only been a dozen of us who’ve left footprints on unearthly soil – who’ve been able to go outside at night, point squarely at the pale mysticism of the moon, and say, “I’m going there” – but brave Neil Armstrong was the first. And now he’s gone.
Humankind has always looked up. In early times, we looked to the sun and moon and constellations as deities who took interest in our existence. Our early explorers used star patterns to get around then-unknown parts of Earth. We created fantastical myths about mortals soaring on wings crafted of wax and feather (and were uncharacteristically wise enough to include in them a warning about overambition), then in 1903 a pair of brothers in America managed to soar a few hundred yards on wings crafted of wood, metal, and cloth.
The language of “up” is everywhere. Keep your head up. Chin up. Stand up for yourself. Movin’ on up. Uprising. Fall seven times, stand up eight. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight. It is hard to imagine another word in the English language able to encapsulate so much optimism and so much hope in so few letters. But up is deeper than that – even as a lotus plant must struggle through layers of mud before it can reach the surface and bloom forth unstained, human existence must struggle upward through obstacles to be free and unfettered. Some of these obstacles occur naturally – gravity, in Mr. Armstrong’s case – while others are put in our way by those who think that their “up” must come at the cost of ours.
There was a time when we did great things. When entire nations could come together and work hard toward a single goal. When there were priorities other than war and profit. When we could set our sights on doing something just because it should be done. “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” a journalist reportedly asked George Mallory, an Englishman who in 1924 may have been the first to successfully do so. “Because it’s there,” he replied. Explorers like Mallory and Armstrong, as well as scientists like Pasteur and Tesla, were not motivated by wealth or glory, but by the knowledge that it was within their ability to lift up the species.
So what happened? Gone is the wild spirit in which we strapped our bravest cowboys to the tip of a 3100-ton 350-foot missile, took our best aim at the moon, and lit the fuse. Gone is the spirit in which we came together and built the Interstate highway system from the ground up, or stood up and said no, everyone should have civil rights. And what has replaced this spirit? Anger? Hatred? Yes, and worse: apathy. Moral governance has become twisted into a sideshow industry concerned with little more than manufacturing wedge issues with which to divide the people and distract them from abject corporate thievery, destruction of the only world every human outside of a dozen have ever known, a growing police state, disastrous austerity measures, and endless warmongering. And that’s just the half of us who actually vote (a number which drops to nearly a third for midterm elections). The other half? Too ignorant to care or too cynical and jaded to think it matters anymore.
Today, a national hero passed from the earth again – this time, never to return. Yet how many of the flowery eulogies currently being tapped out on keyboards around the world will mention that for years, Armstrong’s achievement has simply been impossible? In 1966, NASA’s cut of the overall federal budget was 4.41%; estimates for 2012 place NASA’s slice of the pie put it at 0.48%. We’ve stopped looking up.
But it’s not too late. We The Species need your voice, we need heroes, and we need dreamers who will keep looking up, no matter what. You can get involved, you can lift up others, you can even fly – but the first small step for man is that you have to get up. Then, by stepping, leap. When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.