Thursday, July 16, 2009

One Giant Leap

On July 16, 1969, people waited with anxiety and baited breath as we launched one of the most historic missions of exploration that mankind has yet seen. Not a continent or an ocean would be crossed this time. No, on that day we set out to cross the gulf of space itself and set foot on a land never before marked by human prints. And we did it!
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and mankind has continued to leap forward in ways Armstrong could not have anticipated. Sadly, however, we have not continued on the path he would have naturally assumed. Our space program has done little to push forward the human spirit of exploration and the moon is still untrod and largely unexplored.
Yet there have been great advances. Much of the technology we take for granted today is a direct offshoot of the space program and such projects as Hubble and the Mars rovers do continue our quest for knowledge and understanding. Of course, the space station is pretty much a bust, but it was terribly designed in the first place (the very idea of having a bunch of countries who can't ever agree on terrestrial subjects get together and "coordinate" the building of a giant object in space is laughable when you think about it). And Hubble will probably start falling apart now that there are no more maintenance missions scheduled because shortsighted bureaucrats failed to plan ahead for the end of the shuttle program. And the Mars rovers ... Actually, that program exceeded life expectancy quite some time ago and continues to go fairly strong. Now if only there were something planned to follow it.
Do I sound grumpy? That's because I am. The human race is defined by scientific achievement and exploration and yet we still have people who want us living in the Dark Ages. Today, ABC (that bastion of journalistic integr... sorry, I can't quite complete that, even as a joke) ran a headline which read, "Apollo 11 Anniversary: Debate Continues", and the opening sentence claims that "the argument rages." Informal poll: ask around your office and see how many people are raging about the Apollo missions. There are those who claim that with "the trillions of dollars we have spent on the space program, all we have are some moon rocks, several tons of space junk and a dozen and a half or so dead astronauts," as they type their complaints using microprocessors and satellite communication they forgot to list. There are even those who still insist that the moon landing never happened, who argue that, even with today's technology, we could not accomplish such a feat. Of course they're right. Man could never fly in a giant metal tube or accurately plot the movements of stellar bodies or design pressure suits that were proof against vacuum or ... Wait a minute. Isn't this all rather easily contradicted?
There are always those who insist that nothing else should be done until the poor are fed or the homeless are housed or something else of that sort, and these people also merrily type away their complaints on their computers using their high speed internet, totally oblivious to the internal contradiction. They're also oblivious to the fact that the budget for the space program is minuscule compared to the budgets (notice the plural?) for the various Help the Poor programs and there isn't a chance in the world that adding that small amount to the existing poor programs budgets would make any difference at all. Meanwhile, continuing the research that goes on in the space program very well could have direct and indirect side effects that do help those other programs. Shortsightedness rears its ugly head again!
But "if you don't have the money to begin with ANY expense is too much." I actually saw someone make that argument against pointing out how small the space program budget is compared with budgets for other programs or the GDP as a whole. It's amazing how many people will make this argument against a small expense but will not make it against the huge expenses. If we cannot afford the relatively small expense of the space program then why did such a significant percentage of the "stimulus bill" go toward expanding various liberal programs that cost so much more? How many of these people would argue for cutting welfare or Medicaid or Social Security payouts or HUD etc etc because we can't afford them?
Probably the largest reason I am grumpy, though, is the simple fact that the Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the most important and historic achievements the human race has ever seen and yet, forty years later, shortsighted bureaucrats and even more shortsighted sheep - I mean citizens - have prevented us from doing anything that really built on that. We're marching in place! Granted, we are at least marching in a place where there is still valuable knowledge to be gained, but we could be doing so much more. It's there! Why aren't we reaching for it? Have we, as a species, become so pathetic that we no longer see the joy and honor in striving for the difficult but great accomplishments? I sincerely hope not but sometimes I look around and I worry.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were heroes in a classic sense, in a way that too many people know nothing about anymore. They saw the distant and the dangerous and the great and they reached for it. In reaching, they conquered, and they reminded us that we can be great. They inspired a world, and that is what a hero does. We could use some of that inspiration today. We need to remember greatness and we need to remember that we can be great.
To everyone who was involved with Apollo 11, happy anniversary and thank you for the gift we have yet to earn. Some of us really are trying.

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