Volume 4: Issue 19: Many Worlds
"I always cry when I look at the sky."
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Did you know that we’re sending people to the moon again? Like, soon? I understand there is a lot going on. But we’re sending someone to the moon.
The last person to step foot on the moon was Gene Cernan. He was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 10, the last mission before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon for Apollo 11. “I keep telling Neil that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn't get lost, and all he had to do was land,” Cernan said. “Made it sort of easy for him.” Cernan himself touched the surface of the moon, again, the last person to do it, on December 7, 1972, nearly three years before I was born. Twelve people have ever walked on the moon. Only three remain living; Cernan died January 16, 2017, at the age of 82.
Like most of you, I assumed we were done with the moon. Mars is the goal now, billionaires like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos trying to figure out how to blast themselves off this planet before the place becomes unlivable for the rest of us. This sort of public investment in space travel, I’d thought, had been tossed aside in favor of private enterprise, something Cernan, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong explicitly criticized the Obama administration for encouraging, with Cernan calling it a “pledge for mediocrity,” something that Elon Musk later said “made me sad.”
But we’re not. We’re going to the moon, and we’re going in the next few years. It is embarrassing that I did not know this. I didn’t know this until this weekend, when I took my son Wynn to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, a place he’d been begging to go to “see spaceships.” While it’s fair to say that this particular geographic area of Florida is perhaps not my favorite—as much as anyone can have a “favorite” area of Florida these days—this was a trip I’d always wanted to take. But I assumed it would be more a museum piece, a way to reflect on a long-distant past rather than a look at anything particularly relevant to our current world. I wanted to see the Atlantis shuttle, to sit in the Mission Control rooms, to touch a piece of the moon. I wanted to see what we were once capable of, what we were once able to accomplish, back when we were still trying to accomplish things, back before we were solely just trying to keep our heads above water. I wanted to remember.
I got some of that. There were many videos of white men in crew cuts, trying to beat the Russkies, wearing Jim Garrison glasses in crisp button-up shirts and pocket protectors, smoking and sweating over their rotary phones. But the best part of the tour wasn’t about past glories. The best part pointed toward an active, vibrant future.
During a tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building—one of the most massive buildings in the world—we got the full vision of the Artemis program. The Artemis project (named after the twin sister of Apollo) is one of those rare Trump-era programs that has been continued by the Biden administration and is specifically focused with sending Americans to the moon—and keeping them there. It is explicit about its aims:
With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.
Did you know they were doing this? I am ashamed I did not know they were doing this.
The timeline on this is quicker than you might realize. The first flight, Artemis 1, is scheduled to launch this fall; it’s unmanned and will merely orbit the moon—it’s basically to prove that we can still do such a thing. Artemis 2 launches in May 2024 and will feature a crew doing a “lunar flyby” before returning to earth. Artemis 3 is the big one, scheduled for 2025, with two astronauts spending a week on the surface and becoming the first people to step foot on the moon in 53 years.
I understand the argument that we have bigger fish to fry than exploring the moon. Lord knows we have plenty of problems down here on earth. But while I’m not reflexively against the idea of SpaceX or Blue Origin—I’m honestly just glad billionaires have something to be earnest about—it does mean something when it’s done by NASA. It means something when we do it.
I don’t know if it will succeed or not. (In many ways, it was lucky to have survived the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden one. Most big NASA projects don’t.) But if there’s one thing that seems most lacking from public life right now, it is that sense of collective achievement: Something we can say, “this is what we can do. Look, we have done it.” An experience that we can have collectively, to all feel a part of. I know it would be more complicated than that—that it is more complicated than that. There is nothing that is not in some way divisive anymore. But to see what we have done before, to hear people talk of having touched every single piece of the Atlantis and knowing that “my fingerprints were out there in space,” and to have that be an achievement done not by a goofball troll selling electric cars or a man who has figured out how to deliver a tennis racket and pruning shears to our house in 36 hours, but by collective action, spurred by a nation that may have somewhat lost its way but is still worth believing in, I think … it would be inspiring. It would mean something to have that again. I miss it. I bet you do too.
Plus, Wynn got to ride in an helicopter.
That’s what I took away from my visit on Friday: An odd, unfamiliar, very pleasant warmth of seeing people still out there trying to do something big, believing that we can. Those people see the same awfulness that we all do. They feel the same despair. But they keep their eyes heavenward, trying to feel inspired, believing there is more out there than this—and believing that, collectively, we can come together to find it. It made me feel some hope. I think, after the last month, I needed some hope.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Chattanooga Shooting Is Actually the Bigger Problem, Medium. What happens when guns are everywhere.
Your May All-Star Team, MLB.com. Paul Goldschmidt is a monster.
Tom Cruise Has a Hit But Is Still a Relic, Medium. An elegy to the long-lost movie star.
The Six Teams With the Longest Playoff Droughts, and When They Might End, MLB.com. Pity those poor Phillies.
The NBA Finals Are Going to Be Fun, New York. Go Warriors, obviously.
Your Friday Five, Medium. Tuesday's gray and Wednesday too.
Grierson & Leitch, Grierson’s back, we discussed “Top Gun: Maverick” and the Cannes Film Festival.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I have Nolan Gorman fever.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“How the Internet Turned Us into Content Machines,” Kyle Chayka, The New Yorker. This is becoming a bit of a theme around here.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Many Worlds,” Wilco. I’ve devoured the album over the last week-plus, and am mostly in agreement with Spencer Kornhaber’s excellent Atlantic review: This is the best thing they’ve done since Sky Blue Sky. (Though I will fight in support of Ode to Joy forever.) This is the song I keep coming back to, and I suspect I will continue to all summer, and for many summers after this one. (“Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” is fantastic too. The whole album feels special.)
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
OK, one more NASA photo.
Have a great weekend, all.