Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's Moon Day...

While I've been away from blogging, there have been a bunch (that's a technical term) of things I've wanted to blog about. Most of them are not happy topics, but sometimes it is necessary to think and write about them. But before I wade back into all of that, I really feel the need to point out that today is the 44th anniversary of possibly the best thing humans have ever done.

Forty-four years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on and then later in the day walked on the Moon to become the first humans to set foot on a celestial body other than the Earth. Maybe you had to be there to witness the landing to really understand how big a deal it was. And billions of us did witness it, via a television broadcast of the event, which in itself was a very big deal at a time when we weren't used to instant broadcasts from remote locations as a daily occurrence. The pictures from the Moon that day were a bit murky - resolution was kind of low and contrast was high - but, still, we got to see the "giant leap for mankind" in the time it took to relay the pictures from the Moon to a satellite dish in Australia and then around the world.

It was pretty damn cool.

I've written here before about watching the landing and the Moon walk with my father, who was thrilled beyond words about the whole thing, so I won't go over that ground here again right now.

What I want to address is the amount of imagination that it took to put together the program that sent Armstrong, Aldrin and ten other men (and only men) to walk on the Moon - and, lest we forget, a number of others who orbited but did not set foot on the Moon. Yes, it took a lot of money to go to the moon. But it took even more imagination. The first moon landing took place a little short of twelve years before the Russians put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in orbit around the earth on October 4, 1957 and a little over 8 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space (and to orbit the earth) on April 12, 1961. A few weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. An American didn't orbit the earth until John Glenn did so on February 20, 1962.

From those first manned flights to the first moon landing was an incredibly quick progression. That landing humans on the Moon was accomplished at all, let alone in such a short period of time from the inception of the efforts to put humans in space, took great imagination and great determination. Granted, at least some of that impetus came as a result of the Cold War and American determination that the Soviets wouldn't "get" the Moon. I don't believe, however, that was the whole of the program to go to the Moon. It also had to do with the essential human urge to explore.

I wonder, sometimes, what has happened to that urge, because there doesn't seem to be much of a desire on the part of most people to move on and push the frontier of exploration farther, or even to hold the frontier at the Moon. Whenever it is proposed that we return to the Moon, all sorts of objections are raised. It's too expensive. It's too dangerous. We don't need to go. Plans to go to Mars are met with similar objections. When George H. W. Bush was president, he proposed sending a manned mission to Mars. It was shelved because it was seen as being too expensive. Barack Obama has also called for a mission to Mars by the 2030s, but there is as yet no budget for the effort.

When I was a child and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were progressing, there was a huge excitement about the space program. Now, it seems, very few people care. Very few people seem willing to even look up and see the planets and stars in the universe, much less take any more tentative steps to visit even the closest of those celestial bodies. They seem to want to cling to the planet we were all born and are so far confined to. True, there is a more or less permanent human presence in space, on the International Space Station. But that is a tenuous presence and limited to a few people at a time, with a maximum permanent occupancy of six. It has been continuously occupied for almost thirteen years, but the ISS will not last forever. The United States, since the end of the Space Shuttle program, has no means to send crew members to the ISS and depends on Russian launches to get its astronauts and supplies to the station.

So, I want to take advantage of the anniversary of the first human walk on another planetary body to say that we need to rediscover that ambition, that imagination, that determination to reach beyond this rock we live on and reach out, first to our immediate neighborhood and then, perhaps, to the rest of the universe. Just imagine what we might learn...what me might find.

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