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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Thirty-five lost years...


I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon. - Lyndon B. Johnson

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." - John F. Kennedy (speech to Congress, May 25, 1961)

"Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." - Apollo 11 (July 20, 1969, 4:17pm EDT)
Thirty-five years ago a dream became real. I was (and still am) one of those kids who grew up reading/watching science fiction, from Tom Swift and the Poul Anderson/Gordon Dickson Hoka stories, through the old Gerry Anderson TV shows (Supercar, Fireball XL-5 and Thunderbirds), and I got thoroughly hooked on space travel...no, that should be SPACE TRAVEL!!!

I read books, built model kits (the Airfix Lunar Module kit was a bitch to build) and my Aunt Joyce managed to keep her patience through a longish period of collecting the old Red Rose Space cards (two sets of them - I'm surprised she can even drink tea anymore!). I was a very happy little boy the day Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon and all things were possible out there...

It took little more than three years for the dream to partially die. Apollo 17 was the last hurrah of the lunar landings, the last real step beyond the rim of our little gravity well. We stopped seeing the future out there and became, for lack of a better term, groundhogs...

Oh, we've had our moments since then, but I've always believed that Shuttle was a dead-end technology (the great Edsel of spacecraft), and despite the spiffy pictures we've all seen, robotic exploration can only go so far. The nay-sayers (many of whom seem to be legislators of the dull-minded variety) always harp on the costs of space exploration, and I regret to admit that most people think first with their wallets. The entire dollar cost of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo from 1963-69 was just under $26 billion (that would be in 1969 USD). How much did America spend on overbuilding its (unused) nuclear arsenal in the same period? How much did American consumers spend on junk food or cosmetics? But space exploration and travel have consistently had the short end of the stick.

I suppose it really comes down to a failure of imagination, which is nothing new in 98% of our species. Consider the following statement made by a Massachusets Senator:
"What do we want of the vast worthless area? This region of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust? To what use could we ever hope to put these deserts or these endless mountain ranges? What use can we have for such a place? I will never vote one cent from the public treasury..."
Could this be Mars this man is talking about? No such luck. The Senator was Daniel Webster speaking in the 1830's against the appropration of $50,000 to establish mail service to California...

Perhaps, if we as a species are lucky, the dream (or, as the late Gene Roddenberry called it, the "human adventure") will be reborn; that there are young people out there who, seeing the latest photos of Mars, will wonder "What would it be like to walk there?", and will work towards that goal. It will be an uphill battle against cynicism and selfishness and tribalism (note the public reactions to some of NASA's current proposals) and it will take years to accomplish, but those young people (or their children) and their dreams, as always, will be the hope of a future beyond the gravity well of Earth, regardless of what language they dream in...
"In the German and the English I know how to count down...
...Und I'm learning Chinese," says Werner von Braun.
- Tom Lehrer's "Werner von Braun"