Apollo = Leif Erikson

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Expanding on the subject of the previous post about news that matters in the long term, the Apollo program is worth mentioning, as it has now been almost 40 years (December 1972) since a manned mission to the Moon. This huge gap of time without a manned presence there means that Apollo will no longer be seen as the beginning of our exploration of the Moon, but rather a Leif Erikson-style, temporary exploration (in his case to North America) followed by a return home and no successive exploration for a long time. This will mean that the importance of Apollo will pale in comparison to that of our first permanent settlement on the Moon, in the same way that Christopher Columbus is much more widely remembered in spite of not being the first European to set foot in North America.

One other reason for this is the fact that now the majority of the population in the developed world (and even more in the developing world) has never experienced a time when we have had people on the Moon, so even though some may say that the Moon is old hat if the person saying so is in his early 40s or less it's jadedness borne of hearsay, not direct experience. Let's take a look at the population pyramid for the US in 2010. Here it is:

Now let's divide it into three sections. The red part on the bottom shows the number of people that have had no experience with a manned presence on the Moon whatsoever. No reading about upcoming missions, no news about what people are doing on the Moon today, nothing. The next thin section in red are those that have a faint recollection of Apollo. They kind of remember it being on the TV, their mom or dad telling them about it and have a pleasant but hazy recollection of the missions. The blue section shows those that have a clear memory of Apollo (at least 10-15 years old or so when it happened), and they're no longer the majority.

Ah, but it's only 2010 and we're not going back to the Moon tomorrow. Let's be optimistic and assume that we still manage to get back to the Moon by 2020 thanks to private industry, cooperation with China/Russia/etc., or a sudden resurgence of interest and order from the White House and Congress to get there as quickly as possible. Ignoring any changes to the average life span by then, it will look like this.

So by the time we get back, being on the Moon will be a completely new experience to the vast majority, even more so in the (currently) developing world. This is something to keep in mind when thinking about the Moon vs. other destinations. Is the Moon really old hat? Well, is Europe old hat because of that one trip you made in the 1960s for a week, the only chance you had to travel abroad? Are you an experienced journalist because you had a few articles published back in the early 1970s even though you've done nothing since? Are you still in shape because of that marathon you successfully ran in 1972?

So here's a bold prediction: due to demographic reasons shown above the jadedness many of those currently under 40 feel about returning to the Moon is little more than fluff, and will be washed away in a flood of genuine excitement the day we actually manage to return there.

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