John Scalzi on Neil Armstrong and Future Past

I’m grateful to see John Scalzi’s comments on the passing of Neil Armostrong. I’d been beginning to think that maybe the Science Fiction community had somehow missed this sad passing of an era. I didn’t comment immediately because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful to say. When Neil visited the moon my parents weren’t even legal yet, and I was nowhere yet near Planet Earth. By the time the last man left the moon, I was still no closer, for all practical purposes.

But after reading Scalzi’s post, I realize I do have something to add.

The achievement of Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo Astronauts and those who supported him is one unparalleled in history: mankind has not come close either before or since. Think about that: the greatest human achievement in history was done and gone and practically forgotten by the time I was born. Nothing, since then, has come even close. Sure, we’ve built on the shoulders of giants. But our dreams have been small dreams.

The human race is capable of some truly amazing things: Armstrong’s achievement is proof of that. And we’ve done a lot to make my childhood’s future something that is starting, bit-by-bit, to actually feel like the future. But the greatest disappointment of our future-present is the failure of manking in general and the US in particular to live up to the promise of Armstrong’s achievement.

It’s telling, in our modern day, that we’ve become so fractious and divided that we no longer have any shared dreams. We no longer look forward to a some brighter future. We no longer believe our best days are ahead of us. Instead, you have half our country trying to claw its way back to some imagined (pre-Apollo) golden age and the other half trying to hold on to the gains we’ve made as a society since then. In this divided time there is no room for the future. There is no room for bigger dreams.

In some ways the half looking backward is right: there was a brighter age in our past, but it shouldn’t have been that way: our brightest age should have been still in our future yet to come, with our present always brighter than our past.

There’s a way we can get back to that “future past”. There’s a way we can get things back on track. But we have to stop looking backwards to do so.


I was two months old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and 43 when he died, and inbetween those two events the future changed. When Armstrong landed, a human future in space seemed inevitable — we’d landed on the moon, after all. How long could it possibly be until we had moon colonies, space stations where thousands lived, stuck by centrifugal force to walls which were their floors, and a second space race to Mars? Why, not long as all, it seemed, and so I lived the first decade of my life breathlessly waiting for the moon colony and all the rest of it. And also drinking Tang because, hey, I wasn’t quite ten, and Tang was pretty awesome when you’re that age.

Four decades on, we never did get the mechanistic, physical future required for those moon colonies and space stations. In point of fact that future was…

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2 thoughts on “John Scalzi on Neil Armstrong and Future Past

  1. Two comments on this.

    One is that I do have to note the relative quiet about Armstrong’s desth relative to the recent furor over Steve Jobs. Of course, Jobs was a relentless self-promoter, and Armstrong was the opposite, but still. (FWIW, I’m no expert on Armstrong and my idea of him is based largely in Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon, so definitely a grain of salt would be appropriate.)

    As far as the subject of people trying to get back to a past that never was, I have to quote the great humorist Jean Shepherd (apologies if I’ve quoted this here before): “Nostalgia is based on the assumption that things were ever any better than they are now. They weren’t. Things have always been lousy.” 🙂

    • Yeah, I’ve seen the quote before. (It came up in a discussion of Epic Fantasy and the question of nostalgia as a component of that genre, as well.) But yeah, I see your point about contrasting Armstrong with Jobs. Jobs did a lot of cool things – for all my criticism of Apple, their stuff is undeniably cool. But he didn’t land on the moon. And frankly, I think that the following mathematical formula pretty much sums up my thoughts there: “iPhone < Moon Landing". But part of the problem, I think, is what I talk about here. The single greatest human achievement in history… and, well, it's history. People today don’t appreciate the accomplishment because it happened so long ago, despite the fact that we’ve never been able to replicate the feat the last man left the moon. It’s sad, and a little pathetic, and a condemnation of our modern culture and politics.

      > Date: Fri, 31 Aug 2012 14:21:09 +0000 > To: >

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