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Monday, December 04, 2006

One small step for a man ...

After a giant leap on July 20, 1969, mankind has mostly stood pretty still, looking around and even backtracking.

(And yes, Neil Armstrong actually did say "one small step for a man," which makes vastly more sense in context. Armstrong is a pragmatic, in some ways enigmatic fellow, but he's no dummy, and fully appreciated the significance of the moment. Modern voice-analysis software has confirmed that his "a" was indeed spoken, although inaudible over the moon-to-earth radio link.)

The space shuttle has certainly added lots to our scientific knowledge. The space station was a great idea that's been only poorly realized for the most part. But even the most enthusiastic supporters of those programs must concede that nothing has remotely matched the drama and excitement and enthusiasm that attended the first moon landing.

I was about to start the sixth grade, and I can remember that day vividly. As I watched on television with my family, I was surrounded by plastic scale models of the Eagle and the Columbia and the Saturn V, and I could describe for you in detail every stage of the Apollo 11 mission. Those men, and their predecessors in the space program, were the heroes of my childhood. I was a Sputnik baby, born a month after the space race began in 1957, and I could name every Mercury astronaut, and every Gemini astronaut too.

I cried for days over Apollo One. I was in the midst of a jury trial when the Challenger blew up on January 28, 1986. I heard about it over my lunch break, as I was eating a stale tuna-fish sandwich at the courthouse while preparing my closing argument, and wondered if I could manage to hold down that lunch and get through the day. And I was blogging on the morning of February 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry. Each of those setbacks hurt. But it never once seemed to me that they were good reasons, or any reasons at all, to give up on manned exploration of space.

My own four kids, by contrast, have only the vaguest of appreciation for our astronauts of today — notwithstanding having grown up in "Space City USA," home of NASA and Mission Control, the city whose name was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon, the city where John Kennedy first announced (in a speech that still reads awfully well today) that we would go to the moon in that decade, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. My kids read a fair amount of science fiction. But to them, it's little different from reading fantasy. Dragons, trolls, faster-than-light spaceships — all sort of alike in the category of speculative fiction, something entertaining but not something to which they directly relate. My kids have never tediously assembled plastic models of the shuttle or the space station, not because they lack imagination, but because our society hasn't sufficiently challenged and tantalized their imagination with tangible, current adventures in space.

Sure, there are lots of other things for governments, including ours, to spend money on. There always will be. But what kind of penny-pinching, short-sighted fool has such a limited imagination that he can't see the opportunities, the destiny here? I have no patience with such people, and I cannot identify with them at all.

So I'm pretty gung-ho about the newly announced NASA plans for a permanent moon colony and its eventual role as a way-station to Mars and beyond. In my "topics" choice for this post, I've included "politics" along with "current affairs" — but this ain't about politics, and it's really not even about what's current. I don't have a category set up for blog posts about "really important stuff connected with the destiny of our race," but this is all about the future, and it's really, really important — not so much for me or my own kids, but for theirs and their grandkids and their grandkids' grandkids.

Posted by Beldar at 11:59 AM in Current Affairs, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


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(1) Stephen made the following comment | Dec 5, 2006 8:59:31 AM | Permalink

I was in high school when the Challenger disaster occurred, and will always remember the local news that night. They spent most of their time talking about the accident, then mentioned in passing near the end that a homeless man had died, bringing the number of homeless who had died on the streets seven for the winter. Nobody cared about reversing the trend of putting the mentally ill out on the streets, but we waited for years before returning to space.

During that same period, more people were dying every year in auto accidents every year than were (and are) memorialized on the Wall from TEN YEARS of fighting in Vietnam. Yet, Vietnam is supposed to be a superating wound on the nation's soul while all the people who died on the highway? A Gaullic shrug.

It would be interesting to compare the number of our soldiers who have died in Iraq compared to the number who would probably have been killed in traffic accidents had the units been in CONUS instead of deployed. Probably the same if not less, but the one is accepted, while the other is used to try and undermine the GWOT.

I'll stop before I perpetrate a Beldar-length essay on society and the Media, but it's food for thought.

(2) Matt Bramanti made the following comment | Dec 5, 2006 3:35:41 PM | Permalink

It would be interesting to compare the number of our soldiers who have died in Iraq compared to the number who would probably have been killed in traffic accidents had the units been in CONUS instead of deployed. Probably the same if not less, but the one is accepted, while the other is used to try and undermine the GWOT.

There are about 193 million drivers in the U.S. Annual traffic deaths are about 43,000. So about 0.02 percent of drivers die in crashes annually.

There are about 140,000 troops in Iraq at any given time. Using the above-calculated rate, we could expect 28 of them to die in car crashes over a one-year period.

I'm in total agreement with you about the media's attempt to undermine the war on terror, but you gotta be careful with statistics.

(3) Mark L made the following comment | Dec 5, 2006 6:03:45 PM | Permalink

I too, remember the early days of the space program. I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI. At the time the University of Michigan was deeply involved with the Mercury and Gemini programs.

We had John Glenn speak at my cub scout pack -- mainly because one of the cub's father was a professor in the Aerospace Dept at UM. As a kid, my classmates tracked astronauts like kids play fantasy baseball today. (My "horse" was Jim Lovell -- a good pick, worth lots of points.) Apollo 11 launched for the moon on my 14th birthday.

With a background like that, it is not too strange, that after getting an engineering degree from UM, I came down to work on the Shuttle program at JSC in 1979.

I love Texas -- and will stay here as long as I can -- but the space program is like that drop-dead gorgeous high-mantenance girlfriend you had in high school (or wish you did). Lots of glamor, lots of promises, lots of effort (by you) and not too much in the way of expectations delivered. Two things I would not have believed in 1979 was that 25 years later we (a) would not yet have a Shuttle replacement; and (b) would not have seen men get no further from the Earth's surface than 350 miles (Gemini altitudes).

It is well past time to develop Shuttle follow-ons (it should have been done in the 1990s) and well past time to have a revived interplanetary program. I am glad to see it, but NASA management's attitude towards the Moon-Mars Initiative when it was first proposed was similar to that you get when you tell children we are going to spend a week at the grandparents: "Do we hafta?"

Oh well. I will probably work on the programs until they kick me out. Not because I really think we are going to get to the Moon or Mars. Because I would like us to, and will hang on as long as I can, hoping we will get serious about it and I can be even a small part of it.

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