On the occasion of the death of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, Neil deGrasse Tyson left a tweet that lamented more than just the passing of an American hero. “In 1927 Lindbergh flew from NY to Paris. 45 yrs later, in 1972 we last walked on the Moon. 45 yrs later, in 2017 we… we… we…” The tweet has caused something of a social media firestorm, largely from people who misunderstand what the celebrity astrophysicist was getting at,

Social media reacts badly to Tyson's Apollo 17 lament

NASA Watch sniffed, “Well @neiltyson we have spacecraft in interstellar Space, a car-sized rover on Mars, and an orbiting outpost for humans in space.” Kevin Gregg added, “The probe to Pluto.

I know I know, you despise Pluto and aren't interested.” Tyson was one of the forces behind the demotion of Pluto from the status of a planet to its diminished role as a “dwarf planet,” despite the marvelous discoveries that the New Horizon space probe made as it flew by that world near the edge of the solar system.

Robotic probes and the space station not as impressive as Apollo

Tyson was, as anyone noting the context would understand, lamenting the fact that no human has touched another world since Cernan departed from the moon. The missions of such robotic probes as Mars Curiosity, Cassini, and New Horizons are very impressive. The International Space Station is a marvel and a miracle, considering the political battles that took place over its building.

But Tyson is musing that nothing is quite like seeing a human being exploring an alien planet, the moon, Mars, or some other place.

Apollo as a source of grandeur and of sadness

The Apollo missions to the moon occupy a level of grandeur that people who came of age afterward cannot entirely comprehend. Human beings voyaged from the Earth to the moon and explored the lunar surface in spacecraft that would seem absurdly primitive in full view of a television audience that measured in the hundreds of millions, up to a billion during Apollo 11.

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It was the greatest reality show that ever was and returned so many benefits to human civilization that are beyond proper evaluation. The fact that no one has gone back to the moon or gone to Mars since Richard Nixon was in the White House is a source of puzzlement and no little sadness. It is a blight on human civilization that Gene Cernan did not live long enough to greet the next moonwalker when she returned home from the seventh voyage to the moon.