The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
(I remembered this roughly, but the exact text is from here. The picture I nicked and cropped doesn't match this description; I don't know if there is one that does).
Ultimately, the Apollo programme was rather pointless, a dead end. It must have required great courage to trust in the lunar lander and return system. And the entire thing was of great grandeur, yes, and inspiring to many of course, and produced some unforgettable images. And text. But the sane consequent was robot exploration, and even that (e.g. Curiosity) lacks vision in a way ("What shall we do next?" "Oh, I dunno, how about we just dump something bigger down on Mars?" "I suppose it'll have to do"). The path forwards must be making it self-sustaining, which I think points towards comet or asteroid mining or the like.
[Update: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Apollo_14_Shepard.jpg might be the image that Wolfe had in mind, though it is too cluttered -W]
Whether robot or human, I'd claim that exactly one space capability matters, the combination of:
A) Ability to detect a dinosaur killer far enough away
B) Be able to get something out there to divert it when it is far enough away , ie, with practical delta-v.
[Its something worth doing, but a very limited vision. You're clearly not reading enough sci-fi -W]
The retroreflectors have paid enormous scientific dividends wrt metrology and the returned rocks were also great for the rock jocks. There was a lot learned from the rocket technology which was developed. Oh yeah, the flag still waves
[If you spend a vast amount of money, you'll get some science back. But proportional? No -W]
Centuries hence, that moment may well be known as America's zenith.
Not as great as the iconic image above but from Apollo 14...:
[Aha, thanks. That could be the actual image that Wolfe had in mind -W]
I'd like to believe (in a completely arbitrary fashion) that the greatest impact of Apollo and Neil Armstrong in particular has been on the human imagination.
Not only was the capability developed in a dizzyingly short timescale, but it was also demonstrated. While it doesn't automatically follow, future visionaries may well conclude that we went to the moon, why not the stars?
>"The path forwards must be making it self-sustaining"
I guess we will have to settle for mere self-sustaining for quite a while as self replicating looks a long way off. Manufacturing cpus for example would seem to require quite a substantial infrastructure. Still cpus are light and easily lifted into space so seems likely to be involved for quite some time. In combination with 'off-world' manufacturing of parts for large telescope to be built in a crater on dark side of moon, telescope assembling robots, robot assembling robots, ....
...would seem to be less of a dead end than apollo?
How valuable would such a manufacturing base be?
Are we terribly far off not just space mining but extracting useful materials and making parts off world? Anywhere close to making the cost a price worth paying?
[I think we're a long way off. It was telling that the private-space people were interested, as a first step, in just putting up telescopes to search for likely asteroids. Which was so completely orthogonal to NASA's priorities -W]
WMC: I've probably read enough Science-fiction, still own thousands of books and would love to see things happen, ideally a serious space-based presence ... but the ability to detect and divert dinosaur-killers is a requirement for civilization's existence.
Barry Brook and I got into a long discussion. My contention is that a civilization on our sort of planet gets one real shot: use fossil fuels for an industrial revolution, and then boost to the technologies that maintain adequate energy/person, but no longer need fossil fuels, and do so while maintaining a climate that supports a high-tech civilization.
[Yees, the one-shot idea is one I've turned over in my mind: we can drill for oil miles beneath the sea, but 100 years ago people couldn't; even if they had all the know-how written down the tech would be missing and hard to build without the easy oil that we've used up; etc. -W]
For a moment, just a moment there, Eli thought you were playing Climate Zork
[I liked that, thanks for reminding me. And I hadn't followed the link to http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2012/06/disbelief.html before -W]
The earth is supposed to be in the picture.
"There's your blue Urth coming over his shoulder again, fresh as the Autarch's fish..."
There are some photographs of Eugene Cernan on the Apollo 17 mission that match.
Of course, if it's a painting rather than a photo, it could show anything.