Posted by: justawriter | July 29, 2009

Far Afield – Milestones

“One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neal Armstrong, Apollo 11
It is hard to overestimate the impact the space program had on me personally. It seemed like anything was possible in those heady days. Of course, I had only just turned 9 when Armstrong said those famous words, and many things seem possible at that age. Still, the Apollo program is the romance of my youth, remembered the way others of my generations might remember the ’69 New York Jets or the Beatles’ American tour or the stirring rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
It always bothered me that we stopped reaching for the moon and the stars beyond. It reminds me of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the movie, George is always on the edge of going off to see the world and, to live his dream of becoming an architect.
“I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long …”
Instead, George’s sense of responsibility binds him tighter and tighter to Bedford Falls. First he sends his younger brother to college while he takes over the Building and Loan after his father dies. Then he takes all the money he has saved for his honeymoon to save the Building and Loan during a run on the bank. He takes every thankless civil defense task during WWII. He never left his small town to find his dreams. But, as Clarence the Angel showed him, he saved Bedford Falls from becoming a vast, miserable slum.
In a similar fashion, the concerns of the ’70s – Watergate, Vietnam, the first energy crisis, environmental degradation, discrimination – all seemed more urgent; demanding that responsible people deal with them first. NASA became something of a poor relation, begging for scraps at the budget table. The tragic losses of Columbia and Challenger added to the questioning of whether we should even be sending people into space anymore.
That’s not to say that NASA hasn’t done a magnificent job in the past couple of decades. The agency’s unmanned robot missions and space observatories have inspired two new generations of potential scientists.
Personally, I was lucky enough to be in Grand Forks when Voyager 2 made its flyby of the planet Neptune. The Aeronautical program of the University of North Dakota arranged for a feed to show the raw images as they were beamed back across unfathomable distances and invited the public to attend. Scientists from UND commented on the images and answered questions from the public.
It was a deeply profound experience to realize that I was one of the first people in the world to seeing close up images of such an alien world.
It hasn’t been any lack of skill or imagination that has held the space program back. It has been the lack of a champion for the agency who will put its interests ahead of tax breaks for yachts and three martini lunches. The Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the most significant public relations victory for NASA since the end of the Apollo missions, sat on the shelf for years because we had no way of getting it into orbit. Similarly, the International Space Station has proceeded in fits and starts and has been further burdened by the lack of a clear mission.
But perhaps the lack of a clear mission isn’t really a bad thing. Maybe just being there, surviving and thriving in space is a mission. As the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of that small step for a man, we also saw the largest gathering of people outside the bonds of earth’s gravity. Thirteen people, all living and working in Earth’s orbit.
Perhaps it is symbolic of this new era of manned space flight that the biggest story from the space station was a plugged toilet. It represents a true transition of space – a place where we visit at great peril to a place where we live. The space station isn’t so much a vehicle as it is a home and office, with all the maintenance, cleaning and other chores that come with permanent residency.
It reminds of the settlement of the West. The early explorers came and found a wild and untamed wilderness beyond the cities that hugged the coast. The great forts and trading posts that followed didn’t make much of an impact beyond their local reach, but they did show that adventuresome people could live here, at least for a while.
The true change came with the waves of settlers looking for a better life. Change came with wives and families who wanted schools and churches. Change came with businesspeople with necessities to sell the settlers, creating towns out of the empty prairie as centers of commerce.
We aren’t at the point where we can change space like that, yet. But I see, in the mundane details, that our experience in space is changing. The challenges are still immense. Even at 200 miles up, the space station relies on the protection of earth’s magnetic field to deflect dangerous solar and interstellar radiation. I think those challenges can be overcome, eventually. We will know that space is on its way to being settled when the mundane details become more important than the journey, like your neighbor returning from a cruise to the most exotic locations but can only talk about how the mattress was lumpy and the soup was always cold.
So, happy anniversary Apollo 11. Your giant leap has become something of a leisurely stroll over the last 40 years. But for at least a part of my generation, you showed us what is possible. That we can all, in our own way, slip the surly bonds of earth, and in the words of the poet, put out our hand and touch the face of God.

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