The moment when Neil Armstrong first put a foot on the moon and spoke of a “giant leap for mankind” is rightly enshrined in human consciousness as a symbol of human ingenuity and enterprise, a demonstration of our capacity for transcendence. Despite the enormous technological progress that has occurred in the half century since then, the Apollo missions still stand as possibly the high watermark of human achievement. We still start sentences with, “If we could put a man on the moon…” when wondering at our apparent inability to overcome much more mundane challenges here on Earth.
While the moonshot represented a tremendous technical achievement, it is easy to forget that it was not an exercise in pure human aspiration, but took place in the context of the Cold War, and mainly served symbolic ends in the geopolitical struggle between America and the USSR. Broad public support for these vastly expensive and, practically speaking, largely pointless missions was fired by Cold War sentiments of fear, nationalism and wounded pride after the Sputnik success, and rapidly dwindled after the flag had been planted.
Our crowning achievement as a species was thus also a testament to our foibles, a vivid demonstration of just how far we’ll go to prove a point. The question remains for us as a species then: Are we mature enough yet to harness our vast reserves of ingenuity, enterprise and determination to confront the challenges we face on this, the only planet we will ever have? The COVID-19 pandemic has already demonstrated that drastic and rapid change is possible if we deem the threat serious enough. With permafrost thawing, irreplaceable coral reefs vanishing, fires gutting the Amazon, surely the time has come for human ambition on a grand scale. Surely the time has come for an Earthshot.