Buzz Aldrin: Highpoint University Commencement Speech

Speech written by Wyn Wachhorst for Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, May 9, 2009

spaceman

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” 

Those lines from Dickens could well have been in this morning’s paper. 

 While living in the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, people are losing their jobs and their homes.  While lives lengthen and medical breakthroughs abound, health costs soar out of reach.  While the curve of innovation and discovery approaches vertical, stagnation threatens the very health of industry, science, and technology.  While superstition and discrimination are in rapid decline in the developed world, we are terrorized by people who would be at home in the 12th century.  And just when we’ve so refined our habitat that the night-glow of our species is seen from space, nature, it seems, now sounds an alarm.

In these paradoxic times, it’s vital to hold fast to some redeeming vision of the future.  “Where there is no vision,” says the proverb of Solomon, “the people perish.”  Such conflicted times are often the great watersheds in the history of civilization—inflection points that face a fork in the road.  The choice—the new vision—will come not from my generation, but from yours—from fresh perspectives and a pioneering spirit, not from ossified party lines.  The great departures of history—from single inventions to the rebirth of whole peoples—have come from those who are still innocent enough to believe in the perfectibility of man, and bold enough to take the kinds of risk that revitalize the world.

The particular vision that has defined my life is, of course, our future in space, which I believe may in the long run hold the greatest promise for humanity.  Exploration—both individual and collective—is the heart and soul of the human journey.  It’s the ability to understand and reflect on our experience—to seek out where and what we are—that sets our species apart from all others.  But there are really three realms of exploration: physical (exploring the ocean floor and outer space), mental (the whole enterprise of science), and spiritual (the odyssey of your own life).  So what I’d like to do in these few minutes is touch briefly on all three.

The explosion of technology in the wake of spaceflight has affected every facet of our lives: transportation, communications, medicine, agriculture, countless consumer products, and every form of manufacture.  The economic returns have overwhelmingly exceeded the cost.

Yet beyond all the political and economic rationales, our leap into space is a turning point in human evolution.  The urge to explore has been the primary force in evolution since the first water creatures began to reconnoiter the land.  Living systems reach out to their environment, merging with larger systems in the fight against entropy.  The evolutionary result is a self-organizing synthesis toward ever more complex structures.  And like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline.  They explore or expire.  It’s curiosity, wonder, the need to see the whole—from the mountaintop or the moon—that is the hallmark of our species. 

In the end, our expansion into space promises a revitalization of humanity and a rebirth of hope no less profound than the great opening out of mind and spirit at the dawn of the modern age.  In the same way that seafaring enlightened 16th century Europe, spacefaring will bring not only rich new veins of empirical knowledge but will bind together nations, inspire youth, advance science, and ultimately end our confinement to one vulnerable world.

The moon landings were achieved largely in response to Cold War competition between two nations.  Today it seems imperative that spacefaring become a multinational enterprise.  The benefits of uniting the peoples of the world in a vision of future exploration could extend well beyond cost-savings—beyond even innovation and science. 

In this century we’ll have the technology to either self-destruct or seed the cosmos with life.  The situation is so unstable that I wonder if we can dwell at this life-death fork in the road for more than another hundred years.  A global vision of exploration would nudge the world toward life. 

In the 40 years since Neil and I set foot on the moon, a great deal has been said on the significance of that event.  We became a spacefaring species.  We gained a new perspective on our home planet.  And we showed what humanity can achieve with strong leadership and solid commitment.  But while the moon landing has come to represent the impossible dream achieved through untiring dedication and determination, it also carries a larger message.  That ubiquitous photo that Neil snapped of me on the surface of the moon has become a popular icon not because the moon itself was some kind of culmination, but because it suggests the open-ended future that awaits not only humanity, poised on the threshold of space, but every individual—in the morning of this new millennium—who is willing to take risks.

Risk has always been the price of any successful venture—whether it be our migration out of Africa into the northern ice, the founding of the New World, the shaping of a continent, or the preservation of that new freedom.  The people who fought and won World War II—have been called “the greatest generation.”  Through cooperation, persistence, discipline, and endurance, they abided depression and war, defeating the darkest demon in history, and leaving America a Colossus astride the Earth.  Willing to accept risk and sacrifice, they had a vision of something larger than themselves.  They won the war and returned to recreate America—its communities, roads, businesses, government, arts, and sciences, and an economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history.  As their last great gesture, they put humanity on the moon.  They were a generation united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values—duty, honor, service, love of family and country, and, above all, a sense of responsibility for oneself.

One thinks of the dying lieutenant’s last two words to Private Ryan:  “Earn this.”  Too often we fail to honor that debt.  There is a failure of nerve, a loss of vigor, and a collective hypochondria that cripples our larger visions. 

Someone once asked Wernher von Braun—the man who built the Apollo rockets—what it would take to send a man to the Moon.  His answer is the epitaph of his generation: “The will to do it.”

The Apollo moon landings proclaimed to the world that for a free people—a people with energy, imagination, and acceptance of risk—the sky is not the limit.  When Neil and I stepped off the lunar lander, we simply stepped off the tip of a great pyramid of American technology and know-how.  The spirit of American progress and prosperity lies in its great projects—the bridges, canals, skyscrapers, and transcontinental railroads; Roosevelt’s arsenal of democracy, and Kennedy’s mission to the moon.  America has always stood at the leading edge of history.  The story of this country is one of restless idealism and a phenomenal readiness to work—of migrants and immigrants whose visions of a better life settled the west and raised up cities; of the miners, lumberjacks, cowpunchers, and prairie farmers who tamed the continent.  But above all it’s a history of what a free people—unfettered by tyrants and dogma—can accomplish.  That history now rests in your hands.  America is you.

Our hope is that America will continue to lead the world, not only in the dream of spaceflight, but in all three realms of exploration—body, mind, and spirit—that set our species apart.  When we think of exploration, we think of our migration out of Africa, across seas and continents, reaching the poles, and inevitably, the ancient river valleys of Mars, the ice seas of Europa, the yellow skies of Titan, and ultimately, out into the ocean of light, to sail forever through the starry archipelagoes of the vast Milky Way galaxy.  But that physical journey has become part of the larger journey of the mind:  exploring—through science—the nature of reality itself.  

We’re a species still in childhood, only now becoming aware of a universe turbulent and mysterious beyond anything imagined by our forebears.  At the heart of science is the attempt to complete a grand internal model of reality, to broaden the context of meaning, to find the center by completing the edge.  But in that unending quest, the treasure is the voyage itself, the unfolding of human awareness. 

Yet a vast number of us are simply uncurious about anything we can’t perceive directly.  We’ve learned more in the last half-century than in all human history, yet with all that knowledge at our fingertips, surveys suggest that 80 to 95 percent of Americans are scientifically illiterate.  Since the universe of modern science violates the programming we call common sense, many choose simply to ignore it.  The alleged 15 percent who believe that the moon shot was an elaborate government hoax staged for television somewhere in Arizona exemplify in the extreme the widespread want of the most elementary concepts necessary to grasp the event.

A public understanding of science—science education—is vital to the survival of civilization, if not of our species.  Ignorance is the prime medium for every war and act of terror, every myopic “ism.”  It’s only through science that we’ve been able to pierce the infantile, dysfunctional need to be the center of the universe.  That we even do science is a hopeful sign for our mental health.  In some far future, when all our conceits are revealed to be but a product of our history and inborn imperatives, science will still be ratcheting ahead, finding bits of reality.  No single bit is sacred.  But the quest is. 

My hope is that you will each find a way to embody that quest in one of its myriad forms.  And though all of you may not walk on Mars or become scientists, each of you can become explorers in spirit, opening yourselves to those things that expand your imagination, stretch your understanding, and nurture a sense of wonder.  This requires curiosity, creativity, and self-reflection.  It means not mistaking a hectic personal life for aconnected and meaningful one.

“Tell me,” wrote the novelist Mary Oliver, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Beyond distant voyages and the dreams of science is the difficult journey we all must make through inner space—finding our greater selves, our place in some larger context of meaning.  That journey now seems to have become as arduous as the moonshot itself.  An enormous transformation has occurred in the last half century.  The world has become faster, louder, and less patient.  There’s an obsession with speed, a loss of silence, of privacy, and a sense of overload.  While the rate of information becomes indigestible, the virtual world of television, computers, and i-phones too often substitutes for real experience.  There’s a mounting compulsion to consume material things, a sense of urgency, a vague fear of not keeping up with the world. 

What gets lost in all this is something of our inner selves—that part of us that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who we are and what is important to us, that part of us that’s aware of the choices we have.  Pollution of the soul is no less perilous than pollution of the Earth.

Perhaps this “best and worst of times” foreshadows some fork in the road.  But my belief is that humanity as a whole has the inherent wisdom to choose life.  Again and again, we abide calamity, gather the pieces, and set out once more on our unyielding journey—an imperfect people of irrepressible spirit, of mathematics and music, of love and wonder, who dare to dream of reaching the stars.

“Come, my friends!” cried Tennyson’s Ulysses. “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars!”  Like Ulysses and Columbus, or pioneers on the vast prairie, or the voyages of Apollo, may you each have the courage to risk the abyss—to set sail for the edge and find, instead, new worlds beyond imagination.  As explorers in mind and spirit, may you sail, as the poet said,

out beyond a billion suns,
across the vast sea of the soul
in search of the ineffable center,
the mirror lake in the soft green meadow,
the glint in the eye of God.

Thank you, and Godspeed.

Comments

  1. Reid Isaksen says:

    Wyn, that was beautiful piece of work! I hope Buzz was as impressed with it as I am!

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