There’s no doubt that physics and astronomy was booming in the 1960s. The model that protons and neutrons were made of quarks was proposed and validated, the most powerful nuclear device of all time was detonated, and the Cosmic Microwave Background was discovered, validating the Big Bang. (Not to mention devastating advances in biology, too.)
But something far more awesome than that happened in 1969.
It not only trumps splitting the proton and confirming the Big Bang, it is — for me — the finest accomplishment in all of human history. And its 40th anniversary is exactly three weeks from today. So congratulations to the Apollo 11 crew:
These three men are symbols of the entire space program, and of just how awesome the rest of the Universe is, outside of our home world.
There were a whole bunch of “firsts” that happened with this mission, but they can be summarized in one simple sentence:
We became the first living species to willfully transport ourselves off of our home world and onto another, and to live there, for however brief a time.
Or, as Neil Armstrong put it:
(That’s Buzz on the ladder, by the way. Neil was already down there; who else was going to snap the photo?!)
We have always been explorers, but it was this moment, out of all the moments of the 20th century, that exemplifies just how capable we are of accomplishing even the most daunting of all possible tasks. We left Earth, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles through space, and walked on another world.
As important as everything else was during the 1960s, nothing else captured the world’s imagination as Apollo 11 did. This is so much more important than confirming a scientific theory, than a new, groundbreaking observation, or even an unexpected discovery. This is something that galvanized the entire Earth, and brought us all together, in awe, at what we are capable of doing — for good, for knowledge, for adventure, and for the human endeavor — as a species.
It’s up to us to find the next great enterprise for discovery to inspire the world. What will we do in the 21st century to rival walking on another world for the very first time?