Daily News editorial

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

Where do we go from here? Which modern achievement in human exploration will be celebrated by future generations?

Those are questions that arise from recent commemorations of the initial moon landing, which captured the world’s attention 50 years ago this week.

It was in July 1969 that American astronauts demonstrated the breadth of human potential by traveling 239,000 miles, walking on the surface of the moon, and returning home safely.

It was, indeed, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It might even have been, as President Nixon proclaimed, “the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.”

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon four days later while Michael Collins orbited above, and on July 24 they returned to Earth.

Five decades have passed since the world was captivated by the mission, and still it remains a pinnacle of human accomplishment.

From that moment on, people have lived in a world where humans have walked on the moon.

In some ways, that initial moon landing seems more distant than ever before.

The shared sense of adventure and exploration too often appears impossible to replicate in an age of discord and disagreement, in an era of stifling partisanship that renders big tasks and big problems unapproachable.

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Imagine today if an American president challenged the nation to expand the boundaries of exploration, as President John F. Kennedy did in urging the United States to reach the moon. The reaction would be sadly predictable, leading us to borrow an on-the-mark editorial assessment from the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel:

Right-wing Twitter (if the president were a Democrat): “Typical government make-work program from a spoiled man-child and professional politician who never had to make a payroll. #SaveCoal”

Left-wing Twitter (If the president were a Republican): “Outrageous boondoggle! Spending billions to enrich fat-cat power companies that contributed to his campaign. #FundHealthCareNow”

President Donald Trump has intermittently expressed a desire for this nation to explore space. He has mentioned traveling to the moon, or sending a manned mission to Mars, or developing a Space Force as a branch of the military. But there appears to be little behind these suggestions other than Trump’s momentary peccadillos.

So, where do we go from here?

NASA has tentative plans to land a rover on the moon in 2023, and to work toward an astronaut moon landing by 2028. And there is frequent talk about sending a manned mission to Mars, but plans are not concrete.

Meanwhile, China, Japan, Russia, India and a coalition of European nations have various plans to resume lunar exploration, and the United States continues to lead missions that have probes traveling through deep space to the edge of the universe.

Fueling it all is humankind’s ingrained desire to explore what has not been explored, to expand the bounds of our knowledge and to go where no one has gone before. It is that desire that was captured 50 years ago in a mission that remains among the greatest of human achievements.

As we reflect on that momentous occasion and we ponder whether humans have retained their ability for previously unimaginable accomplishments, we wonder how future generations will view this current moment in history.

Roughly 50 years from now, will we celebrate any modern accomplishments? Or will we simply revel in the 100th anniversary of the moon landing?

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