Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Dream of Space 40 Years Later

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

Ok, time for a pop quiz: What speaker does the above quote belong to?

If you guessed former U.S. President John F. Kennedy you're right on the money. Kennedy spoke the line more than 40 years ago, in 1962 inside the football stadium of Rice University, to be exact. His speech stands as one of the best of all time. Few other spoken words I've heard carry the simplicity and power of Kennedy's address.

The President's dream was realized, although he would not live to see it. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon. This was only eight years after Kennedy had declared his country would achieve this great task.

But now, 40 years later, there are stories in the Canadian and American national media lamenting how little progress mankind has made in exploring space (manned mission to Mars, anyone?) since Aldrin and Armstrong took that famous, "small step for man, and one giant leap... for mankind."

As feature writer Kenneth Kidd wrote in a recent issue of The Toronto Star, "So much has changed. To revisit the heady days of Apollo 11 is to know that we now live in a time of chastened expectations and diminished dreams, as if we've somehow acknowledged we are no longer capable of or willing to replicate the kind of astonishing effort it took to put a man on the moon that glorious summer."

Sure, astronauts still journey to space — the recent launch of the space shuttle Endeavour is one example. But who do you hear making a fuss about space travel in 2009? The Endeavour launch got media attention, but certainly not overwhelming interest in the crew's mission. Maybe it's because people realize that humans haven't reached other planets besides the moon. Or maybe it's the failure of national politicians to give speeches and fund projects that would inspire people to wonder about space once more.

The Star article briefly mentions former American President George W. Bush's 2004 declaration (while running for re-election) that humans should return to the moon by 2020. I call this a textbook case of small-thinking, probably small thinking caused by a perception of some political advantage to be reaped from another moon mission (or at least talk of one)

And Bush's reason for wanting to put humans on the moon again? "We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit." Current U.S. President Barack Obama offered an even more tepid (I didn't think it possible) expression of enthusiasm for Bush's program, called Constellation. Obama's reason for more NASA missions? "To restore that sense of wonder that space can provide."

To be fair, Obama is dealing with a massive government deficit at a time when the world economy is going to shit. To invest billions of dollars into future NASA missions when life is looking so bleak on Earth would be a dumb move politically. You can read the Star's feature on the 1969 moon landing online here.

Another finely-written piece on the 1969 moon landing comes from The New York Times issue of July 18, 2009. It's written by none other than Tom Wolfe, one of the fathers of the 'New Journalism,' and author of some of the most complex and rewarding novels I've read. These include — The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Bonfire of the Vanities (later made into a horrible movie) and A Man in Full, a personal favourite.

In the piece Wolfe argues that NASA faded into irrelevance because the agency lacked a, 'philosopher corps.' To simplify Wolfe's argument, the space program, particularly the Race to the Moon, was just another front of the Cold War between the United States' and the USSR. The Soviets had already successfully launched the Sputnik satellite and sent a man (Yuri Gagarin) and a dog (Laika) into orbit before the United States.

By early 1961, Wolfe writes, President Kennedy was obsessed with the idea of 'catching up' to the Soviets in what had become a space race. Wolfe likens this to a kind of, "single combat." The idea being that two opposing armies each send a champion to do battle in a prelude to all-out war.

Wolfe writes:

"The deadly duel didn’t take the place of the all-out battle. It was regarded as a sign of which way the gods were leaning. The two armies then had it out on the battlefield ... unless one army fled in terror upon seeing its champion slaughtered. There you have the Philistines when Little David killed their giant, Goliath ... and cut his head off and brandished it aloft by its hair (1 Samuel 17:1-58). They were overcome by a mad desire to be somewhere else. (The Israelites pursued and destroyed them.)'

'More than two millenniums later, the mental atmosphere of the space race was precisely that. The details of single combat were different. Cosmonauts and astronauts didn’t fight hand to hand and behead one another. Instead, each side’s brave champions, including one woman (Valentina Tereshkova), risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore."

Of course we all know how this ended. In a one year period from 1968 to 1969 America launched 5 lunar missions. And Apollo 11 hit pay dirt — Aldrin and Armstrong took their, "giant leap for mankind." If he could have seen it, surely Kennedy would have been pleased to see the home team waving one giant middle finger at the Soviets from the lunar surface — "Nyahh! Nyahh! Beat you to it!"

Wolfe argues that once post moon landing bliss began to fade from public consciousness, U.S. politicians set their sights on NASA's plush budget (think approximately $5 billion a year in the mid-1960s') He said it best, so I'll quote Wolfe's Op-ed one more time:

"And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma ... made you think of re-election ...."

Here's where NASA's lack of a philosopher corps comes in. There was nobody in the organization willing (or able) to defend the goals of space exploration to the U.S. Senate and Congress. The person who came closest, Wolfe argues, was Wernher von Braun, a German rocket scientist and former Nazi that America's military had brought back to work for them after the Allies won the Second World War.

Wolfe was lucky enough to hear von Braun speak near the end of the man's life. Of course, he'd never been NASA's pre-eminent spokesman as von Braun's Nazi background left a blemish much too dark for any public relations stain remover. He remembers the scientist's main argument being that mankind needs to 'build a bridge to the stars' because the planet Earth, which orbits around that flaming star also known as the Sun, will one day see the Sun live out its' life span.

And then what will become of humanity?

But nobody in the right places was paying attention to von Braun's speech, because NASA's budget continued to decrease into the 1970s'. So today we get politicians like Dubya wanting to replicate what mankind has done 40 years ago. Is there even a whisper out there of a manned mission to Mars now? What fills the dreams of our collective imagination today?

Who among us is bold enough and with enough imagination to give the world the boost to take the next great leap?

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy..."

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