We could be forgiven for thinking that what we witnessed, via television, on that long July evening in 1969 would change everything about our world. Hours after the Apollo 11 lunar module had landed on the moon, we saw the hulking figure of a space-suited creature gingerly descend the spacecraft ladder and plant a foot on the surface on the dusty surface of what had been, until then, only a heavenly body — “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong, who uttered those words, died late last month. People around the globe, looking skyward, saw a changed relationship between Earth and the moon. In the United States, the joyous wonder had a patriotic aspect, since the project of reaching the moon had been cast for more than a decade as a superpower contest. The moon landing dispelled the embarrassment from which Americans had suffered since the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1 into space in 1957.
Yet Armstrong’s feat had implications not just for Americans, but for all of humankind, whose place in the universe had suddenly shifted. For a few precious hours, the hurts and divisions of the late 1960s yielded before a startling new vision of human possibility. Apollo missions beamed back the astonishing photographs of Earth, a blue ball hanging in the dark void of space, a fragile planet from which national borders over which so much blood had been spilt were simply erased. A hopeful new paradigm was born.
Wasn’t the moon landing to be the start of the next human chapter, with many more manned thrusts into outer space to follow? Stanley Kubrick’s scientific fantasy, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” had seized the popular imagination only the year before, and now versions of such far-reaching exploration seemed not only possible, but imminent. An almost religious faith in technology had arrived. Yes, a giant leap into the realm of unlimited possibility had occurred. And why shouldn’t that July night have been, especially in America, one of the century’s happiest?
How different it all looks now. Perhaps the Apollo missions were the last undebated triumph of American government, coming just as broad public trust in Washington was undercut from right to left by the brutal extension of the Vietnam war, the betrayal of civil rights by racially disproportionate incarceration, the lies of Watergate, the hijacking of wealth by the 1 percent. The post-Apollo abandonment of manned lunar exploration foreshadowed the replacement of humans with robots in space, which itself echoed an earth-bound transformation as machines trumped human intelligence and skill — enhancing life, but also sparking our present economic dislocation.
Forty-three years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, it seems apparent that, instead of opening the way to a realm of limitless possibility, the event marked the start of a harsh reckoning with human limits. For one thing, space itself turns out to be far vaster than all but the most sophisticated astronomers once imagined. The notion that humans could travel any but the smallest part of it now seems absurd. Through our super-telescopes and unmanned spacecraft, we come to recognize an ever-expanding limitlessness to which the mind is barely open.
Unusually for Americans, we accepted limits — scientific, economic, physical, poetic — in letting go of the dream of man in space. It may return, and competition with China may fire it up. Neil Armstrong, who rued America’s retreat from manned space travel, would surely hope so. And yet modesty was perhaps Armstrong’s most impressive trait, and it has become a mark of America’s self-understanding, at least as far as space travel goes. We motes of cosmic dust achieve glory not by imagining ourselves as masters of the universe, but by fully knowing our place in it. Glory enough.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.